Imagine this scene if you will: A wispy white cloud streams out the nostrils of a young man. He’s dressed in religious garb, a thick text under his arm, a sleek tube protruding from his fingers. There are other men around him, all deep in concentration. This is a yeshiva, a house of learning. Yet, this man presents a paradox. Here he is, steeped in the hallowed texts of tradition with thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, yet he ignores one of the most basic principle of Jewish law.
This scene, while only imagined here, is also a real scenario plaguing the next generation of young people: the rise of electronic cigarette use among youth—Jewish and gentile. These aren’t your grandparents’ smokes. The pernicious intrusion of e-cigarettes into the lives of our teenagers is a modern-day shame. The issue is particularly alarming, even in the world of Orthodoxy. Indeed, in 2017, when the Israeli government imposed tax hikes on smoking, the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world caused an uproar by opposing the increase, even though their rabbinic leaders came out against smoking.
The use of tobacco, lamentably, is deeply ingrained in world culture. Tobacco smoking has existed for millennia, although until 1492 tobacco was grown and consumed only in the Americas. Columbus’ sailors brought tobacco back to Europe, and from there it spread to the rest of the world. In the seventeenth century, the English rescued the failing colony of Virginia by cultivating tobacco, which was made profitable by the institution of slavery, creating a truly evil partnership. Tobacco in cigarette form was not widely used until the twentieth century and was popularized especially through aggressive marketing to soldiers during World Wars I and II.
The addictive nature of nicotine and the serious health risks of lung cancer (which kills more Americans than any other cancer), cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (eventually leading to emphysema) have been known for decades. Despite all the research about the detrimental health effects of cigarettes, 20 percent of Americans still smoke, and around 450,000 Americans die prematurely every year from smoking; researchers have found that a smoker loses an average of 14 years of life. Even though more than 1,200 Americans die each day from smoking, for every death, two more people under the age of 26 take up smoking. One in five American teens smoke and 80 percent of them will remain addicted as adults. Cigarettes are also the most frequent cause of fires that lead to death in homes. (And these numbers do not even account for the harm of second-hand smoke.)
Fortunately, according to a comprehensive report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC,) cigarette smoking among youth has declined significantly in the past few decades. A new development, however threatens to reverse this trend. Electronic cigarettes, introduced in 2003, are devices that create an inhalable aerosol that usually contains nicotine, flavorings, and additives. Currently, there are about 7,700 flavors available, with new, custom flavors being created each day. While it is claimed that e-cigarettes help smokers quit the habit, most studies and surveys contradict this. In 2016, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted that: “The use of products containing nicotine in any form among youth, including in e-cigarettes, is unsafe.”
A dramatic rise of e-cigarette use in the United States began in 2007, and ominously coincides with large tobacco companies dominating the field. The e-cigarette market in 2017 was $1.16 billion, a 40 percent increase over 2016. Companies such as JUUL Labs (whose 2017 revenue was $224.6 million have developed e-cigarettes that are simultaneously more attractive to youth and more difficult for school personnel or parents to detect: they are packed in colorful designs that mimic candy wrappers, look like USB flash drives, have sweet, fruity flavors, deliver nicotine (although many do not know the fluid contains nicotine), and do not emit much smoke to the extent that some students vape during class.
This marketing strategy, sadly, has paid off. In 2015, use of e-cigarettes was 16 percent (2.4 million) among high school students, a significant increase from 1.5 percent in 2011. Likewise, 81.5 percent of young e-cigarette users said they used an e-cigarette “because they come in flavors I like”; among middle school students, 620,000 had used an e-cigarette.
While Dr. Murthy urged strong action to curb e-cigarette use (including raising the price and determining standards), the Trump administration has been more equivocal. On April 24, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, announced that forty retailers were being cited for youth sales of JUUL e-cigarettes, that eBay had been persuaded to stop selling JUUL products, that the FDA had investigated hundreds of thousands of retailers and began about 17,000 civil cases, and that they had requested documentation from JUUL Labs about their research and marketing practices. In addition, Dr. Gottlieb indicated that standards would be forthcoming. However, critics point out that in July 2017, Dr. Gottlieb gave e-cigarette companies five years to come up with proof that their products offer a safe alternative to smoking. Critics note that the manufacturers lobbied heavily for the delay, while e-cigarettes are still marketed in a similar way to cigarettes in the past to lure young people to smoke.
Although cigarette taxes and anti-smoking programs offset some of the damage, this industry has brought about tremendous societal harm—adverse health effects and a powerful marketing and political propaganda apparatus to perpetuate the habit that leads to them—and the Jewish community has been all too silent on this issue.
There is some hope: there is an increasing consensus that Jewish law prohibits smoking. And just as regular cigarettes are forbidden by Jewish law due to the harm they cause to oneself and to others via second-hand smoke, so too electronic cigarettes are also forbidden. This formulation follows from a Torah commandment to live a healthy life (Deuteronomy 4:15). Even before it was clear that smoking posed great health risks, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said that smoking was a prohibition based on Numbers 15:39: “You shall not stray after your heart and after your eyes” (Iggerot Moshe, CM 2:76, YD 3:35); and that second-hand smoke is a form of damage upon another (CM 2:18). In 2006, the RCA ruled that smoking tobacco is prohibited by Jewish law. Rabbi Aaron Kotler also made clear in a letter that it is a Torah prohibition to smoke. Modern Orthodox authorities, including Rabbis Ahron Soloveichik, Aharon Lichtenstein, and Gedalia Dov Schwartz prohibited smoking and countless other rabbis have made it clear that smoking is a practice prohibited by Jewish law.
In addition, Jewish law does not allow for an alleged right to smoke or to do harm to one’s body. Some have suggested that the Jewish concept of “G-d protects the fools” (Psalms 116:6) should apply to permit smoking. The late Rabbi Efraim Greenblatt challenges this point: “Who would lie down in the middle of the street and claim ‘Hashem protects the fools?!’” He and Rabbi Chaim David Halevi suggest that smoking is considered in the prohibited category of suicide (Teshuvot Asei Lecha Rav 3:18). The Shulchan Aruch went further, arguing that one does not have the right to do as he pleases with his own body if it causes harm (CM 427:10). The rabbis teach that our bodies are ultimately on loan from our Creator. The Chofetz Chaim writes that if one’s doctor tells him that he must stop smoking, one must obey: “How may a slave choose to do as he pleases, if he belongs to his Master?” (Likutei Amarim chapter 13; Zechor LeMiriam chapter 23).
The prohibition on smoking does not only apply to individuals, but to society in general. The Rambam taught that: “Concerning any obstruction that is life-threatening, there is a positive commandment to remove it and protect against it and to be exceedingly careful concerning it” (Hilkhot Rotzeiah 11:4-5). Even though one is obligated to obey one’s parents, Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi rules that one is not permitted to provide a cigarette for a parent who requests it (Teshuvot Aseih Lecha Rav 6:58, 7:65). Due to the injunction to “not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), one must do everything possible to ensure that others are prevented from accessing the lethal object of a cigarette. Rabbi HaLevi argues that it is a chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s Name) to smoke, since the enlightened world knows how harmful it is, and Jews should not be seen doing foolish things (3:18). By this reasoning, it is also a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name) to be on the front lines of banning all forms of cigarettes from society.
Smokers today should be viewed as cholim (individuals with a sickness) who we must help heal. One cannot claim that “liberty” allows them to increase their burden on the health care system or bring harm to family members, coworkers, and strangers. Creating a more universal health care system is a social justice issue, but so is creating a society that places collective demands on preventive health practices. A 2012 study supported by the National Cancer Institute concluded that, from 1975 to 2000, smoking reduction and cessation programs saved nearly 800,000 Americans from death by lung cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just launched a new $54 million dollar “scare campaign” based upon new scientific studies showing that the “scarier the message” the more likely to change behavior. We should be scaring people to not smoke; it’s a mitzvah. The tobacco companies invest billions of dollars a year in marketing and their reach is deeply embedded in the cultural psyche. To push back effectively, we’ll need to redouble or triple our efforts to improve and expand smoking reduction and cessation programs, and to tax, and even ban smoking. It is not only a social justice imperative; it is not only a health imperative; it is a Torah imperative.