Cigarettes & sin: the problem of ‘reduced risk’

Big Tobacco have developed a new set of ‘heat not burn’ cigarettes. In conventional cigarettes, tobacco is typically burnt at around 800C. In the two products available on the British market, the new ‘heat not burn’ cigarettes heat the tobacco to 350C and 50C. According to findings by the department of health, reported in the Guardian, this exposes users ‘to about 50% less or 90% less of the “harmful and potentially harmful” compounds’.

Interestingly, the Guardian report:

The ‘heat not burn’ cigarettes in the UK market have been developed by the tobacco giants Phillip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco. PMI has said it is committed to a smoke-free future in which it will sell safer alternatives. But it still markets cigarettes heavily around the world, especially in the developing world where fewer restrictions are in place.

Now, one doesn’t have to be a genius to recognise that Big Tobacco clubbing together to offer ‘safer alternatives’ to cigarettes is not likely to be driven by an undying commitment to public health. Such companies have fought every government move toward regulations on cigarette sales, packaging and advertising in a bid to reduce the life-ending effects of smoking.

Imagine my surprise, then, that the committee report ‘heat not burn’ cigarettes lead to ‘reduced risk’ but do no eliminate the risk. Indeed, the Guardian note, ‘they are less risky than conventional cigarettes, the committee has found, but nobody should assume they are safe’. Likewise, Prof Alan Bobis – chair of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment – said ‘there is likely to be a risk to health with “heat not burn” products, although it would be a reduced risk, but the safest thing is to quit altogether’.

So many people are addicted to cigarettes – or simply enjoy them more than they care about the effect on their health – and have no real desire to give up. Significant numbers of people care about the devastating effects on their health but they simply love the cigarettes more than the health benefits. For such people, a product that essentially allows them to continue smoking but reduces the risk of health problems is welcome.

Now, I will go on record and say that I do not think smoking is sinful. I don’t see any Biblical warrant for that claim and some data that stands against a claim to its sinfulness. For example, the oft-cited 1 Cor 6:19 reference is rarely referenced alongside the preceding verse in which ‘every other sin’ seems fairly comprehensive. If it is sinful, arguments predicated on the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit stand against the verses making that very case. Moreover, Jesus’ comment in Mk 7:15 seems relevant in conjunction. These, with no other Biblical warrant in favour of insisting on the sinfulness of smoking lead me to conclude that it isn’t sinful. However, whilst I don’t think smoking is sinful (albeit unwise for lots of extra-Biblical reasons), that isn’t the purpose of this post. I am rather interested in how this approach to ‘reduced risk’ cigarettes mirrors our own tendency to sin.

For all the health damage that cigarettes do, some simply want to continue with them regardless. Others, ultimately enjoying the cigarettes but wishing to avoid their baleful effects, welcome these ‘reduced risk’ options. The thought, or so it seems, is that harbouring a ‘heat not burn’ habit will not ultimately lead to the sort of problems typically associated with years of smoking.

In the same way, there are those who simply enjoy their sin. They perhaps recognise the baleful effects of it; they perhaps don’t. In either case, they openly embrace their sin and have no thought for the things of Christ.

Others, however, recognise the ill effect of sin in their life and would like to avoid the inevitable end that comes to those who embrace their sin. But many like to think there is some sort of ‘heat not burn’ version of their sin. Ultimately, they like their sin but if they can co-opt a bit of Jesus they might just be able to have their cake and eat it. If I claim to follow Jesus, and even submit to his authority on certain matters of sin, perhaps that will be enough to keep me from the very worst effects of wholehearted rebellion against him. It is the ‘heat not burn’ version, we lessen the sin as far as possible whilst still, in point of fact, continuing in that same sin.

Like ‘heat not burn’ products, such an attitude may give the appearance of reduced risk. However, much like ‘heat not burn’ products, is still a risk to our health. In fact, it doesn’t even reduce the risk. It holds Christ in contempt and pretends that we can embrace sin – albeit the sins we have either ‘reduced’ or determined in our own minds are ‘lesser’ – whilst still considering ourselves forgiven and in right standing with God. Such an attitude fools no one, least of all the God who knows our hearts better than we know ourselves.

The bottom line, as the apostle John makes plain:

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God (1 John 3:9f).

We may choose to harbour ‘reduced risk’ sin if we like but scripture is clear that such still carries a hefty health warning. Far better to renounce your sin and simply quit altogether by repenting, turning to Christ in faith and making Jesus Lord of all parts of your life, not just those bits you’re happy to give up.