12 October 2010

Vargas Llosa on smoking, quitting, and living

In honor of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize, I thought I would recall what I (and perhaps only I) think is the best thing he ever wrote.  It was an op-ed from the New York Times from 1 Sept 2000, entitled “A Languid Sort of Suicide”.

He begins by saying “since I stopped smoking 30 years ago, I have detested cigarettes and their manufacturers” and later describes smoking as an “unmitigated cataclysm”.  But having demonstrated a self-awareness about his emotional attitude toward smoking, cigarettes, and manufacturers, he -- unlike the obsessed anti-tobacco extremists who have cultivated such hatreds until nothing else seems to matter to them -- he goes on to make clear that this clearly does not justify twisting all of society around his pique.  In particular, he objects to liability awards against cigarette companies. 

He tells the story of starting to smoke, having it a major part of his life, and then quitting and persuading others to quit, becoming a best-case scenario for ceasing and being delighted by the choice.  Yet he waxes quite eloquently about the appeal of smoking as a lifestyle, a reminder to those who pursue anti-tobacco extremism (who, of course, will pay no attention) and those of us who advocate THR (who try to listen).

The last three paragraphs make the column a timeless classic.  I reproduce them below, pushing the barriers of fair use, perhaps, but the column is difficult to find now:

The obligation of the state, in a democratic society, is to make citizens aware that tobacco is harmful, so that they can decide with adequate knowledge whether to smoke.  This, indeed, is what is happening in most Western countries.  If a person in the United States, France, Spain or Italy smokes, it is not out of ignorance of what this means for health, but because he does not wish to know, or does not care.

To commit suicide by degrees is a choice that ought to figure on the list of basic human rights.  This is the only possible approach if we wish to preserve the freedom of the individual, which must include the freedom to opt not only for what is beneficial to him, but also for what harms or injures.

And so, though at first sight, the decision of juries to impose astronomical penalties on the tobacco companies may seem a progressive measure, it is not so.  What sort of freedom would it be that allowed us only to choose what is good for us?”

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