Stopping Smoking

In the next few hours large numbers of people around the world will be united by a common desire to stop smoking. Many good intentions will be mapped out for the new year.  There will be those who decide to go for the big bang, having their “last cigarette ever, ever” on New Years Eve. Most however will see the personal cost of this as too great and opt for a phased withdrawal.

To achieve this some will try to adopt a low-tar bridge away from the more toxic high-tar tobacco dependency. Others will adopt a strategy of mitigation where they chart a future of declining dependence with monthly targets for the consumption of reducing numbers of cigarettes. They may attempt to support their efforts by wearing nicotine patches, or chewing special gum. Some will go for a more radical lifestyle change encompassing healthy eating, exercise and alternative treats funded from the money saved on cigarettes.

Of course there will also be those smokers who do not intend to stop at all. Those that understand completely they are increasing their risk of cancer dramatically but don’t care. Their addiction to tobacco being so great they genuinely cannot face a world without it.

Some will engage it a bit of self-deceit colluding with the now bankrupt blandishments of the tobacco industry that have moved on from attempting to sell doubt about the health impacts to the extolling of smoking as an expression of individual liberty.

There will be those who argue  the problem is so far off and the current impact so limited that it is not worth taking action on something they enjoy so much now. Next year maybe or the year after that, or sometime in the future.

Others may put their faith in medical breakthroughs which lead to a cure for cancer. Obviously they will be hoping the cure comes before they succumb to the disease.

Those opting to continue to smoke will accept they need to focus on strategies for adaptation, e.g. recognising that running for the bus is something they will never do again.

Despite the science of doubt funded and disseminated by the tobacco industry most people now accept they are taking a significant risk with their health by smoking. For many there will be real anguish and sincere intent over the next few days as they wrestle with what the best strategy for them is.

In Paris earlier this month 195 nations grappled with essentially the same problem. How is the world going to stop smoking? Specifically, how can we break our dependence on fossil fuels. The responses were very similar. Some were keen on drastic reductions immediately, particularly those on low-lying islands in the Pacific, most saw this as too radical however.

As among smokers there were those who felt a bridging strategy should be adopted by “smoking” less-toxic natural gas. Then there were those who wanted to invest in alternatives to overcome our need for greenhouse gas-emitting forms of energy.  Most agreed a phased reduction in the use of fossil fuels was probably the best way to quit however there was a deal of uncertainty about how quickly this should happen, how a tally on the number of “cigarettes” smoked would be kept and who was going to lead the way. The balance on all this was effected by the amount of faith people were willing to put in a “moonshot” technology breakthrough to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. If you believe the technology will come in time then you can burn what you want now and suck it up later. Of course the technology might not come and so then you may really have to “suck it up”.

Analogies always break down and whilst there are similarities there are also significant difference between an individual’s struggle to cut their dependency on cigarettes and the collective struggle of the world’s population to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.

First, the problem of passive smoking is of a different order of magnitude to climate change. Everyone on the planet is at risk of the impacts of climate change irrespective of whether they individually smoke (emit CO2e) or not. Worse, some, who have smoked a long time, notably the developed nations of the world, have created a problem which is as toxic for  those who have only just started smoking (emerging economies) or indeed, those who only have, the fossil fuel equivalent of, the odd cigar at Christmas (least developed countries).

Also climate change seem a long way off. There are lots of much more pressing problems in the here and now, ISIS; Europe’s economy; migration; the Ukraine etc. Whilst it seems the planet is beginning to show some symptoms they are not seen as portends of an existential challenge. Dreadful as they are, for the people involved, things like the “unprecedented” levels of rainfall causing floods in the north of England this December are in the “awful but manageable” category.

The opportunity to do something about climate change look like it now has a trajectory and timescale similar to the development of cancer in a person. Currently as a planet we are smoking at the rate of around 50 giga tonnes of CO2e emissions a year. Think of it as the equivalent of an individual smoking 50 Capstan full strength a day. If they both continue at the same rate over the next twenty years the outcomes for the individual and the planet are likely to be equally bleak. Action to reduce the amount of CO2e in the atmosphere needs to start now.

Unfortunately, the voices of those denying the reality of global warming still have real power for instance dominating the US Senate. No doubt there will be some who continue to deny the reality of the process at some point in the future from their tropical hideaway at the North Pole. People that espouse these claims now need to be dismissed as extreme, stupid or those whose job depends upon it. Individuals who chose to smoke now do so in the full knowledge they are harming their health. Increasingly the world must realise greenhouse gas emissions have a similar impact.

The real collapse of the analogy between smoking tobacco and burning fossil fuels is the scale of the impact they have respectively. If an individual choses to continue to smoke 50 Capstan full strength a day it ends in personal tragedy for them. If we continue to smoke 50 giga tonnes a year it will end in collective tragedy for the human race. If we are to avoid this we need to find a way to act collectively more rationally than we sometimes do individually.

Stopping smoking requires support, encouragement, substitution, alternatives. It also requires resolution. This year the World’s resolution on stopping smoking has to firm up. The resolutions of nations, so far, made in Paris does not get us there. Stopping smoking is not easy, it really hurts. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels will hurt and it will be costly. Politicians alway talk about vision but act on focus groups. If the floods of the past few weeks begin to focus people on how the world’s climate is beginning to change then some collective good might come out of the personal catastrophes they have created.

The issue is too important to leave to short-term politicians keen on a “soundbite solution” today which they undermine by their long-term actions once the news agenda moves on. Parents and grandparents need to think seriously about what kind of world they want their offspring to grow up in. We all need to resolve to stop smoking now. If we fail we risk succumbing to the cancer of climate change.


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