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Mark Twain vs. the Moral Statistician

Mark Twain vs. The Moral Statistician


by James Bollen


These are dark days for everyone who enjoys the varied and nuanced pleasures of tobacco.

Over the past decade, smoking bans have spread across university campuses, public buildings, beaches, restaurants, and bars. Smokers have been pushed to the fringes of society, along with lepers and Ebola patients.

I wish that were a joke. According to a 2006 study, “Non-smokers use terms such as ‘outcast,’ ‘persecuted,’ ‘lepers,’ ‘under-class’ and ‘blacklisted’ to describe smokers’ status in society.” You can see these poor pariahs huddled outside the library in the freezing rain as they try to sneak a puff or two.

Look, we all understand the health risks associated with smoking. But let’s spare the moralism and the stigmatizing of those who recognize that tobacco can (gasp!) afford some pleasure in life. Mark Twain had it right when he condemned the “moral statistician,” who is “always ciphering out how much a man’s health is injured, and how much his intellect is impaired, and how many pitiful dollars and cents he wastes in the course of ninety-two years’ indulgence in the fatal practice of smoking.”

The moral statisticians have begun airbrushing history as well. Like Stalin wiping Trotsky and other opponents out of photos, they have removed any evidence of smoking from the FDR Memorial (so much for President Roosevelt’s omnipresent cigarette holder), postage stamps (chain smokers like painter Jackson Pollock and newsman Edward R. Murrow get a smoke-free makeover), and cartoons (never mind that the Flintstones advertised Winston cigarettes in the 1960s).

What about all those great men and women who found enjoyment and comfort in smoking? How would Winston Churchill have held England together through the Stuka screams and falling bombs without his cherished Cuban cigars? Would J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis ever have shown us Middle-earth and Narnia without the incantational assistance of their pipes?

Where will it stop? Will we ban campfires? (Because we all know what habitual smokers they are.) Hookah? How was that passed over? No one seems to protest a place where large groups of college students can gather around a water pipe to smoke flavored tobacco. Marijuana? C’mon. No one pretends it’s healthier than cigars, but a few states have already legalized public consumption.

It’s time we stopped treating smokers as our mortal enemy. They are our friends and family members. They are our leaders: both the president and the speaker of the House have made known their fondness for tobacco, and surely they need some kind of outlet between their bruising political battles.

Twain put it well when he told the moral statistician, “You never try to find out how much solid comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment a man derives from smoking.” As Twain added, we shouldn’t “approve of dissipation,” but at the same time we can’t have “a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices.”


James Bollen is a senior at Colorado Christian University


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