My writer friend Linda, who has been encouraging my various escapades since we met in graduate school more than four decades ago, wondered aloud why I didn’t just lop off the “tobacco” part of this blog. “Only 20% of the US population smokes; everyone eats,” she reasoned, worrying that I was unnecessarily limiting my readership. I think I mumbled something about the tobacco tie-in being my own special niche, combining my expertise on smoking and body weight with my passion for food, cooking, and culinary history. Upon reflection, I concluded her question deserved a better answer. After all, the fact that one can do something doesn’t mean that one should do it. So I decided I would tackle this issue head-on in my first post. The following list, though not exhaustive, may be instructive if you think the food-tobacco relationship is something that need only trouble smokers:
1) You should be interested in food and tobacco if you care about food security. Over ten million acres of land urgently needed for cultivation of food crops – enough to produce an annual tobacco crop of 6.7 million tons, enough to feed 10-20 million people – are diverted to tobacco production. These acres cannot readily be restored to agricultural food production because of the heavy pesticide application and leaching of nutrients associated with tobacco production. Wood, the primary source of cooking fuel in many regions, is extensively used for tobacco curing. The resulting deforestation contributes to climate change with potentially devastating effects on agricultural food production globally.
2) You should be interested in food and tobacco if you care about the epidemic of eating disorders in girls and women. Adolescent girls – especially those with serious concerns about weight and body image – have been repeatedly shown to take up smoking as a dieting tool. Across the age spectrum, smoking is over-represented in women with diagnosable eating disorders such as bulimia and binge-eating disorder, as well as in the many more women with subclinical manifestations of these conditions. These women may be using smoking to hold excessive eating in check - behavior that may re-emerge upon smoking cessation and lead to weight gain in amounts that, unlike normal weight gain after quitting (i.e., around 10 pounds), may actually be detrimental to health; or alternatively, may discourage smoking cessation altogether. (For this reason I have often felt that smoking should be classified as a “compensatory behavior,” along with purging and excessive exercise.)
3) You should be interested in food and tobacco if you care about the use of food to seduce children into tobacco use. I’m not just talking about candy cigarettes – although amazingly, those are still around and available for purchase. I’m also talking about low-priced starter products laced with food or food-like ingredients intended to make them mild and sweet. I’m talking about tobacco ads placed at kids’-eye level or near candy, or displayed cheek by jowl with ads for kid favorites like Slush Puppie drinks. (Check out Tobacco Free Kids for further info on efforts to “normalize” tobacco use.) I’m talking about hookah bars and shisha cafes peddling intensely food-flavored tobacco to college students. I’m talking about e-cigarettes.
4) You should be interested in food and tobacco if you care about nutritional health disparities. Smoking lowers vitamin C levels, accelerates production of free radicals, and interferes with Vitamin D absorption. Smoking undermines dental health. For reasons of economics, culture, and availability, smoking is associated with poor dietary choices (e.g., fewer fruits and vegetables, more fat). Since smoking and poverty go hand in hand, the nutritional harm caused by smoking disproportionately affects the poor. Why has the dramatic decline in smoking in the U.S. left the smoking rate among the lower classes relatively untouched? Is it in part because smoking relieves hunger? Whatever the reasons – and they are undoubtedly complex - the cost of tobacco cuts disproportionately into the food budget of the poor.
5) You should be interested in food and tobacco if you ever visit places where smoking is allowed in restaurants. I remember the bad old days when the non-smoking section, if it existed at all, consisted of a table or two in the darkest and least desirable part of the dining room; nor did the ambient smoke know it wasn’t supposed to drift into the non-smoking area. Since then consciousness has been raised on this issue, but there are still 23 states that allow smoking in restaurants and bars, at least under some circumstances. Smoking in restaurants, or at table in homes, is still normative or at least provisionally permitted in some countries in both the developed and developing world. (And I doubt that these bans are so thoroughly entrenched that they couldn’t be reversed in response to political or economic pressures, at home as well as abroad, either by sweeping legislation or by piecemeal chipping away.) I am endlessly fascinated by the cultural, political, and economic forces that drive the tobacco-meal association despite the paucity of satisfactory biologically-based explanations.)
6) You should be interested in food and tobacco if you care about what the impact of highly processed foods on our national diet and their major contribution to the so-called “obesity epidemic.” Big Tobacco and its various sidekicks (Big Advertising, Big Law) pioneered the transformation of a natural product into a substance more addictive than anything found in nature (definitely not your forebears’ peace pipes!), the marketing of that substance using seductive and misleading imagery, and the downplaying of risk by propagating “junk science” and creating a fog of doubt around legitimate scientific evidence. These lessons have not been lost on Big Food.
7) You should be interested in food and tobacco if you care about what you put into your body. Pesticides and fertilizers used in tobacco farming can leech into the surrounding soil and groundwater and thence into the food chain. Discarded cigarette butts are another source of environmental contamination that can end up in our food supply. Organic cigarettes? Puh-leez!
I will talk more about all these issues, and others, in subsequent posts. For now, I hope I’ve persuaded you that you have a stake in this topic - even if you don’t smoke now, even if you’ve never smoked – and that much remains to be said about food and tobacco.