Bring Back Smoking to End Obesity

The apparent post-’70s rise of obesity in America can in significant part be explained the decline of smoking. The decline of smoking inversely matches the rise of obesity almost perfectly:

I can attest in the ’90s and early 2000s it was common to see pedestrians smoking. Cigarette butts littered the sidewalks and accumulated in small mounds or dams around storm drains when it rained.

Fast-forward to the 2010s and I cannot recall the last time I saw someone smoking, and the cigarette butts are gone too. It’s like in the span of a couple decades this habit which afflicted tens of millions of Americans was eradicated, compared in the mid-20th century when smoking was an inescapable part of American culture, glamourized by the entertainment industry and endorsed by the biggest celebrities of the era. Smoking was so ubiquitous that even US military rations included cigarettes, a practice which stopped in 1975.

Today it would seem smoking is perceived as the opposite of cool or the ultimate social faux pas, as an outward indicator of low social status and an advertisement of one’s conscious and open disregard for his or her health and those affected by the secondhand smoke. At the same time, the rise of ‘fat acceptance’ has made society more tolerant of obesity.

Whereas smoking has disappeared, on social media one not uncommonly sees people feasting on fattening food at restaurants that are known for notoriously high calorie counts, like at Cheesecake Factory, or while watching TV. It’s not like the consequences of obesity are not well advertised, yet people continue to overeat in light of this. This suggests a major shift in consumer tastes, likely choosing food over more dangerous or contraband habits like smoking or hard drugs.

In my post The Rational-Consumer Explanation for Obesity, I argue that Americans are swapping out an unsafe habit, smoking, for a safer and de-regulated one, that being food. Moderate obesity (a BMI between 30-35) lowers life expectancy by only 2-5 years, compared to 10 years for heavy smoking ( > 1 pack a day):

Smoking attenuates weight gain in three ways: As a substitute for snacking whilst giving that much-needed dopamine rush, suppressing appetite, and by slightly raising one’s metabolism by about 10%. Given that a small caloric surplus over a long time leads to obesity, this can make a difference over many decades in terms of mitigating energy surplus and weight gain. Consequently, quitters gain weight, and the nicotine addiction makes quitting difficult for a lot of people, in much the same way people find it hard to stop eating unhealthy food.

[The delivery of nicotine by smoking leads to vasoconstriction and the ‘cool’ or relaxing sensation that is attendant with smoking, and explains why patches, gum, vaping and other nicotine-delivery substitutes are not very effective as stimulants. The pleasurable and instant delivery of nicotine is only in its most dangerous form, smoking.]

This sudden weight gain is observed for the discontinuation of other types of stimulants, like amphetamines. Amphetamines were first synthesized by Lazar Edeleanu in Germany in 1887, and in the ’20s saw widespread use thereafter as a drug, like during war or for recreation, until being much more restricted in 1970 and beyond under the Controlled Substances Act, signed into law by Nixon. That is also when obesity rates began to tick up.

Outside of the US, smoking is more common, which can in part explain America’s higher obesity rate compared to elsewhere:

Although smoking hasn’t gone way completely in the US, as the above map shows, various smoking bans and social stigma means smokers need to be covert and strategic about where they choose to light up.

Whether it’s suppressing appetite, boosting metabolism, making people more sociable and outgoing (sharing cigs is great way to make friends and break the ice), and for both its calming and mentally-stimulative effects (typically, drugs can do either but not both), smoking makes life better in every respect (except for the whole lung cancer and COPD part of it, and discarded butts everywhere). Hell, smokers also die sooner, helping to reduce medical spending and social security spending in old age.