Of Cigarettes, Christianity, and Cool


I heard on the news that the FDA is getting all fired up about regulating e-cigarettes – possibly even banning them outright for youngsters.

Why? E-cigs may not have the risks associated with ordinary cigarette smoke, but they’re still a vehicle for delivering nicotine – an addictive stimulant. Plus, there’s plenty of fear that e-cigarettes and “vaping” could make old-fashioned smoking “cool” again – disaster! Here’s from a story in the New Republic:

Tobacco control advocates worry that any effort to “normalize” even the rituals of smoking, as with e-cigs, could undermine hard-won battles to ban public smoking, re-establish smoking as cool, and lead to youth-directed marketing.

After all that hard work on the part of the feds and the healthcare workers to make smoking uncool, there’s a real possibility that it will suddenly get hip again.

Here’s the thing, though: Smoking is still cool. It never stopped being cool. It didn’t matter how many pictures of diseased lungs you showed kids, smoking’s allure never diminished. Heck, I’m a nurse with experience in cancer and hospice care, and an ex-smoker, and I even still think it’s cool.

You see, it’s not the nicotine so much as the culture – something Hilaire Belloc understood apparently. Here he is using a smoking analogy to make a point about Arianism:

To give a man the history of tobacco, to give him the chemical formula (if there be such a thing) for nicotine, is not to make him understand what is meant by the smell of tobacco and the effects of smoking it.

Think of Humphrey Bogart and James Dean. Steve McQueen and, well, pretty much every actor (and actress) from the previous era (i.e., my era). They all smoked – on camera – and it was very cool.

Of course, that was back when smoking on screen didn’t land you an automatic “R” rating for your movie, thus walling you off from impressionable youngsters. But I’m not so sure today’s impressionable youngsters are so backward that they’re not still picking up the message (and images) that smoking is associated with coolness, despite the “R” ratings. Celebrities still smoke, after all, and they’ll still be seen doing so by our kids even if it’s not on the silver screen.

Smoking has always been associated with membership in the adult world – especially that upper echelon of adulthood in which serious issues and important matters cause so much stress that chemical stimulants (like nicotine delivered via smoke) are required to handle it all. Smokers were like Holden Caulfields, and if Holden’s angst appealed to you, so did his approach to managing it. Even if you avoided smoking yourself, you still secretly longed to be part of the angst-ridden clique that coped by lighting up.

What was true then is true today: Cool often trumps truth, and no amount of public health marketing and browbeating will change that.

Note to evangelists, catechists, and youth ministers: The same principle applies to the Gospel. And forget the hype surrounding our new cool Pope. There’s simply no way to make Christianity itself cool, and you’ll discover that those outside the church have already figured this out.

But, really, it’s not a remarkable finding. Just walk into any Catholic church, and you’ll see behind the altar a guy being tortured to death. That’s who Christians worship, that’s our God. There’s simply no way to make that cool.

In fact, it’s totally uncool. It’s about sacrifice and martyrdom. It’s about meekness and turning the other cheek. It’s about kissing lepers and loving the enemy and taking care of the poor even when the poor resent your care.

And it’s also about a whole range of related causes and positions that are bound to offend just about everyone – things like the right to life, the defense of traditional marriage, rational immigration reform, abolishing the death penalty, and sane alternatives to perpetual war.

We need to quit kidding ourselves, especially when we’re reaching out to teens and young adults. Like smoking cessation, Christianity will never be able to count on the coolness factor. But truth? As Chesterton wrote of his own conversion:

The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.

Of course, our Lord said it first – and better: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Cool – like vaping – has no staying power. Truth and freedom, on the other hand, never go out of style.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.
Richard Becker


Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • JMC

    On modern TV shows, the only people who smoke are the bad guys, or at least the ones with questionable ethics. This is itself a problem: Kids think being bad is cool, and that’s nothing new. When I was a kid, anyone who made an attempt to be “good” became the butt of jokes at best, bullying at worst. My parents both told similar stories. It was the ‘fifties “greaser” who had the most allure; the girls were all drawn to him; the guys all wanted to be like him. The “greaser,” as such, may be gone, but his essential “type” is still around, and has just as much allure as ever.
    I recently went back to college. And I discovered that the percentage of kids who smoke is the same as it was forty years ago. In 1972, I graduated from high school in a class of some 150 students. Only a handful of us didn’t smoke. In 2004, my college class was about the same size. And only a handful of us didn’t smoke. The anti-smoking campaign began forty years ago, first with the banning of tobacco ads on TV. And since then, it has made no difference in the number of people who smoke. When I was in grade school, one priest even tried to tell us that, because science was showing that smoking was harmful, and the Fifth Commandment forbids us to do anything to harm our health, smoking could be considered sinful. And yet two-thirds of that class took up smoking within the year.
    Sin itself is still “cool,” and, because of concupiscence, it probably always will be. And that’s why we tend to shy away from the Man Who was tortured to death.

  • rosebud

    Exactly ! That’s why we must always keep the perspective; People sin more from LACK OF WILL than from LACK OF KNOWLEDGE. John 16: 33 is the only way to attract those who shy away from the “Tortured Guy”; “You will have troubles…take courage/ Heart, I have overcome the world.” Threatening with fear & punishment for disobedience only “Stirs Our Concupiscence” ie. “Stay out of the cookies ! ” only makes us want a cookie more. (“…law empowers sin.” 1 Cor. 15: 56). It goes without saying; “We can’t dance/ Truly celebrate life if we don’t have an answer for our mortality. (Quote from St. Thomas Aquinas). TRUTH IS A PERSON ! Show others that *Person*.

  • JMC

    Threats of punishment for disobedience only stirs our concupiscence. Truer words were never spoken! That is why Prohibition in any form, whether as in the 1920s or as in today’s “war on drugs,” or even in some places’ (I’m looking at you, New York!) attempts to regulate what we eat and drink, is ALWAYS an exercise in futility.

  • ManofHonor

    Slightly off topic, yet still within the boundaries of “bad = cool”, I have heard that women prefer “bad” men. There seems to be more allure to that reckless carelessness. And of course then those gentlemen who use chivalry get dumped on the side and the women just get hurt from “loving” those questionable people. I am not saying however that all women are attracted to the “bad boy”.

  • I don’t know if that’s completely true, that about Christianity being uncool. You’re being selective in what you picked out. Christ walked on water, that’s pretty cool. Christ returned from the dead and had Thomas stick a finger in His wound, that’s pretty cool. St. Paul was blinded and then converted, that’s pretty cool. St. Francis of Assisi is pretty cool, and he’s had staying power. St. Catherine of Siena exchanged her heart with Christ’s, that’s pretty cool. St. Bernadette had our Blessed Mother appear to her, that’s pretty cool. There’s lots of cool things in Christianity. 🙂

  • Marie Dean

    Hollywood was given grants from the tobacco companies to make smoking ubiquitous in movies. So, the powers that be made smoking cool.

    No, Catholics are not cool, and we are become less cool. But, that is OK, as the real message will come through-love and sacrifice.