The following is an essay I wrote that is published in the Spring, 2016 issue of The Youth Messenger, a publication of the Free Reformed Churches of North America. Reprinted here with permission.
Is It Such A Big Deal?
A comment on smoking in the Youth Messenger on the topic of health is not that surprising. It is common knowledge that smoking is bad for your health. A good message is to avoid it, but it is not that simple. Many of you have friends who smoke. There are still a number of people in our churches who smoke. So is it important to know something about it?
Smoking has quite an appeal. People are easily hooked and even spending lots of time and money pursuing it. It has numerous undesirable side effects, including a variety of cancers, damage to lungs, and even leads many to needing oxygen therapy later in life. Hands and teeth are stained. The list goes on and on. Many look down upon smokers. Why would anyone continue to smoke? Why do we do anything we do? Is it not because, in some way, we get something we want from it? Smoking of both tobacco and marijuana cigarettes effect people’s minds in ways they find desirable. This may not explain the first smoke, but it explains ongoing use. Tobacco has nicotine. Marijuana has cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being the most desired. Many of the undesirable side effects are caused by the smoke and not by the nicotine and THC. Nicotine and THC can be ingested without smoking them. So, why do people smoke?
Smoking, whether cigarettes or cigars, involves sucking smoke of incompletely burned dried plant material into the lungs. The burning results in a tarry substance containing toxic and cancer causing chemicals, responsible for many of the unwanted side effects. When smoke is drawn deep into the lungs nicotine or THC is transported rapidly into the blood stream, hitting the brain in about ten to fifteen seconds. Their rapid delivery to the brain gives desired euphoric and calming effects that cannot be achieved ingesting them in other ways. This is the main reason, whether people realize it or not, why they continue to smoke, in spite of the many negative effects.
Currently under age tobacco use and marijuana are illegal and as such should be avoided. Another common argument Christians use against smoking is “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and you should not do things, like smoking, that cause unnecessary damage. This is a right reason to avoid even occasional smoking. Of greater spiritual concern than risk of physical harm is the effect both nicotine and THC have on the mind. Many realize that THC affects the mind, but is this really a problem with nicotine? Our grandparents and even some parents used to smoke and they are OK. Do not be fooled. The problems of smoking nicotine not only damages the body; in truth, it affects the mind.
Tobacco cigarettes are addicting, meaning many people, once hooked, seem trapped and cannot stop smoking. Why? There are two reasons. First, smoking nicotine has an effect on the way people feel which is so desirable that they smoke it spite of the many problems they know it causes. The experience is so powerful that, even after quitting for several years, many are drawn back to smoking when life gets tough. After talking with many smokers, I have concluded smoking nicotine can give people the feeling that everything is OK, even when it is not. We live in a world where everything is not OK. The promise of even a short moment of feeling like everything is OK is extremely powerful. It is like the rich man that Jesus tells about who, once in hell, pleads for mercy saying, “send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue.” (Luke 16:24) This powerful effect of Nicotine on the mind has drawn many people back to smoking time and time again, for a short lived reward, in spite of the toll it takes on health and life. I have not had opportunity to ask if marijuana smoking has a similar effect, but the fact that medical marijuana is being supplied as dried marijuana plant material in a form which can be smoked, and that smoking remains the main way marijuana is used, suggests that delivering THC to the brain, by the rapid method of smoking, provides the feeling many users desire.
The second reason smokers do not stop is because regular smoking results in persistent changes in the way people feel. Regular nicotine use leads to brain/mind related problems. Many find it difficult to go long periods without having a smoke. You may even know people who “need” to go for a smoke soon after church finishes. Almost immediately after sucking in the smoke, many feel more relaxed, experience improved mood, decreased stress and even decreased anger. When the effect wears off it is common not to feel as well. A cycle, of not feeling well and then smoking to feel better for a short time, often results. When in withdrawal, or trying to quit, increased agitation and anger are common. Regular THC use also can affect the mind. Memory, learning, alertness, and complex brain activities, can also be impaired with long term use, especially if started in the teen years. It can induce paranoia and anxiety syndromes similar to the brain/mind illness called schizophrenia.
These mind altering and addictive effects of smoking mean we should also be concerned about the new trend of vaping nicotine or other mind altering chemicals. Vapes attempt to rapidly deliver nicotine to the brain for mind altering effects similar to smoking.
When quitting smoking, temporary replacements like nicotine gum, patches and other medications may have a place, but quitting, without just replacing it with another mind altering vice, requires a change in desire. This is also known as a change in heart. This comes from God. Unfortunately, until glory, our old desires stays with us. So, we should not be surprised if the desire to smoke plagues past smokers from time to time.
Smoking begins by feeding our sinful desires. If continued, it leads to an altered way of thinking which becomes very difficult to break away from. It is a quick short acting “high” that before long seems to control you. It is like a quick fix for discontentment which, ultimately, leads to increased discontentment, like other sins of discontentment such as, alcohol overuse, pornography, gluttony, etc. So, those of us who are not entrapped by smoking should not think ourselves, somehow, better than those who are. Let us look for ways to encourage and help each other in the battle against sin, like smoking, that can so easily beset us. (Heb 12:1) Let us pray for each other that we stand against the pressures to try things like smoking, that we “not conform to [the patterns of] this world.” Let us especially pray for those who are already entrapped by smoking that they can be “transformed by the renewing of their minds.” (Rom 12:1) Let those who are struggling against smoking consider the instructions in James 5:13-18 and think about involving others and even your elder to pray and to be accountable to.
Remember what Jesus said to His disciples when they asked why they were unable to cast out a persistent demon. “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matt 17:20-21)