I smoked from the age of 13 to the age of 33. I loved smoking. I loved having something to do with my hands. I loved making friends by cadging — or sharing — cigarettes. I loved learning Zippo tricks, finding beautiful old cigarette cases at flea markets, learning to roll a cigarette, then learning how to do it one-handed. I loved the excuse to take breaks from my work.
But I hated smoking. I knew it would kill me. I watched it kill people I loved. They died hard. Gradually, the quixotic pride I felt in the lengths we smokers went to in order to engage in our increasingly disfavored habit turned to horror.
For example, the story of science fiction legend Judith Merril’s brain surgery. Judy was a mentor to me and so many other writers in Toronto, and after her surgery, Lorna Toolis, head librarian at the Merril Collection (the sf reference library she founded) came to visit her, only to find her hospital bed empty. Lorna feared the worst — Judy had died on the table, say — but after a moment’s reflection, Lorna decided to check the hospital’s outdoor smoking area, where she discovered Judy in a wheelchair, head swathed in bandages, hours out of major surgery, puffing away at a cigarette.
At the time, I experienced this story with a thrill of addict’s pride: there was a true virtuoso and devotee of the evil weed. Later, the story took on a different cast: the indomitable, brilliant, ceaseless and restless Judith Merril was prisoner to an urge manufactured and spread by a remorseless and murdering corporate cartel.
When I decided to quit, I found a hypnotherapist —Dr Alan Banack, a former emergency room MD and psychologist who went into practice doing clinical hypnosis — and visited him for three or four sessions. The hypnosis was great, like really fine, guided meditation, deeply relaxing and reinvigorating.
Importantly, it helped me overcome my fear that if I quit smoking, I wouldn’t be able to write anymore, since I’d always done the two activities together (today I tell writing students not to smoke at all, but if they must, not to smoke while writing, lest they prolong their addiction to protect their artistic production).
But what really helped me kick was Alan’s advice about motivations: “You’re 33 years old. You might smoke for 40 more years before you get sick. Not getting sick in forty years won’t be much of a motivation next week when you’re craving a cigarette. You need a motive for next week, not forty years from now.”
That was my homework: go away and think of an immediate reason not to smoke. When I came back, I had my answer ready: “I spend two laptops per year on smokes. That money goes directly to the dirtiest companies on Earth, the literal inventors of the science-denial playbook that is responsible for our inaction on climate change. Those companies’ sole mission is to murder me and all my friends. I’m going to quit smoking and I’m going to buy a laptop this year and every year hereafter, and I’ll still be up one laptop per year.”
And that’s what I did. I just ordered my next laptop, my seventeenth new computer in the seventeen years since I quit. That’s a savings of seventeen laptops — call it one full year’s worth of tuition and living expenses for my kid when (if) she goes away to college in half a decade, a quarter of her potential student debt.
Hypnosis and nicotine patches were key to getting me off one of the world’s most addictive and dangerous drugs, but the clincher was my hatred of the tobacco companies. It’s been 17 years since I kicked, and laptops notwithstanding, I still hate those evil fuckers.
The tobacco companies created modern science denialism: the cluster of dirty tricks that include introducing doubt about causation, paying experts to make bad-faith arguments about the difficulty of making scientific claims linking their products to harms, pushing a narrative of “personal responsibility” that blames the people they murdered for their own deaths.
As Tim Harford documents in his brilliant 2021 book The Data Detective, the 1954 classic “How to Lie With Statistics” was authored by a payrolled shill for Big Tobacco, Darrell Huff, whose planned (and never realized) followup was to be called “How to Lie With Smoking Statistics.” Huff’s work wasn’t just about debunking bad stats: it was also about casting doubt upon the statistical evidence linking tobacco with cancer.
Denial thrives on epistemological chaos: a denialist doesn’t want to convince you that smoking is safe, they just want to convince that it’s impossible to say whether smoking is safe or not. Denial weaponizes ideas like “balance,” demanding that “both sides” of every issue be presented so the public can decide. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a believer in dialetical materialism as you are likely to find, but I also know that keeping an open mind doesn’t require that you open so wide that your brains fall out.
The bad-faith “balance” game is used by fraudsters and crooks to sow doubt. It’s how homeopaths, anti-vaxers, eugenicists, raw milk pushers and other members of the Paltrow-Industrial Complex played the BBC and other sober-sided media outlets, demanding that they be given airtime to rebut scientists’ careful, empirical claims with junk they made up on the spot.
This is not a harmless pastime. The pandemic revealed the high price of epistemological chaos, of replacing informed debate with cynical doubt. Argue with an anti-vaxer and you’ll soon realize that you don’t merely disagree on what’s true — you disagree on whether there is such a thing as truth, and, if there is, how it can be known.
The thing about denial is that it self-corrects. If something you do is creating a real problem, and you don’t do anything to resolve that problem, and you keep doing the thing that is creating the problem, eventually, the problem will be undeniable.
That is: if you smoke and smoke and smoke, eventually, you will get sick. When you get sick, it will be hard to deny smoking’s role in your illness, and even if you do, and if you keep smoking, you will get sicker, and sicker, and sicker. One way or the other, the denial will be extinguished.
Smoking is the perfect kind of activity for denial: the distance between cause and effect are so far apart. No one puff can ever be causally linked to a tumor, but enough puffs are all but guaranteed to produce a tumor given enough time.
The gap between cause and effect is where denial lives, because this gap obscures causality. If you practiced your baseball swing by closing your eyes, swinging the bat, going home and then, six months later, having someone tell you whether you connected and where the ball went, it would be very hard indeed for you to improve your performance.
Any time the consequences of an action are separated by a lot of time and space from the action itself, the people who profit from that action will be able to obscure the harm it does to you.
This is why privacy is such a shambles. No one disclosure is certain to harm you, but a lifetime of semiconsensual data-harvesting will eventually ruin your life and/or the life of someone you love.
By the time that happens, it will be too late: your immortal plume of data-exhaust will be in the atmosphere, blowing hither and yon, impossible to recapture and contain.
Denial self-corrects, but that correction comes too late. The moment of peak indifference — the moment at which our collective denial of a real problem starts to self-correct in the face of ghastly, undeniable evidence — is usually well beyond the point of no return.
If you realize that smoking is killing you only after your diagnosis, if you start worrying about your privacy only after you are doxed, if we only care about the climate emergency after everything catches fire, then it’s possible that nothing will change.
Denial slides ever so easily into nihilism.
If we don’t care about crashing rhino populations until there’s only one sad old bull left in a zoo, well, then, why not face the inevitable and find out what he tastes like?
The architects of tobacco denialism are still with us, alive and wealthy in exactly the way that their victims are not.
From thinktanks like the American Enterprise Institute to PR giants like Dezenhall, the tactics developed to sow doubt and blame victims for tobacco-related cancers have been refined and sold to discredit everything from Net Neutrality to vegan mayonnaise.
Denialism over masks, vaccines, opioids, problem gambling and gun proliferation all follow the same playbook, often because the same handful of profiteering firms are behind them.
California wildfire season is almost upon us. Last year, the sky turned red for weeks and ash rained down on us like something out of an edition of the Inferno illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch. We are nearing the point of no return for our planet and civilization. We can’t afford to wait for it before we confront our denialism.
Meanwhile, the tobacco industry is as innovative as ever. Juul — the vaping monopolist that Marlboro’s private equity owners showered with billions — is at the vanguard of a commercial campaign that successfully reversed decades of decline in nicotine use in children, making kids the new growth market for nicotine consumption.
The vaping denial playbook is both sickeningly familiar and terrifyingly innovative. Vape billionaires claim that their product helps people quit smoking, but no one has any idea how to quit vaping. The vaping industry deliberately targets children, and the products it targets at them have the highest doses of addictive chemicals the law allows — more than cigarettes or even the vape pods sold outside of the USA. Juul leads the pack here, having conned public schools into allowing it to give sales presentations to schoolchildren disguised as “mental health seminars.”
That’s what things are like here in the rich world. In the global south, tobacco plays hardball. Poor countries that pass laws to limit tobacco addiction find themselves on the receiving end of “Investor State Dispute Settlement” lawsuits, where provisions in trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are invoked to force countries to repeal laws that threaten corporate profits.
(Yes, this is a real thing, and it was central to the TPP. Whenever some dimbulb tells you we should restore TPP because Trump killed it, remind them that a stopped clock is right twice a day and that TPP was a revolting corporate giveaway)
Back when Big Tobacco started losing cancer lawsuits, one of the smartest lawyers I know told me that he thought they’d withdraw from the US market and focus on overseas markets, killing people of color like him instead of white people like me. At the time, I thought he was being cynical — now I realize he was not cynical enough. Big Tobacco figured out how to do both.
No matter how long you’ve been smoking for, it’s not too late to quit. See a doctor. Try the patch. Promise yourself a laptop. Sure, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, but the mere existence of the tobacco companies today is a blazing signal that corporate evil attracts no penalties, emboldening the sociopaths and criminals who will kill us all to make a buck.
Thanks to Matthew Rimmer for suggesting this column. Check out his entry in the Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 call for cigarette package designs here.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering; and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias.