We have been very aware of 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). About 20 percent of Americans still smoke, around 450,000 Americans die prematurely every year from smoking, and researchers have shown that a smoker loses an average of 14 years of life. Even though we have over 1,200 Americans dying every day from smoking, for every death, two more people under the age of 26 takes 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.

In the early 17th century, King James I, one of the earliest critics of tobacco, levied a tax on imported tobacco. Unfortunately, later monarchs did not continue this policy, and tobacco flourished. History has shown that cigarettes can never be taxed too much. It has been shown that for every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes, youth smoking has been reduced by about 7% and overall cigarette consumption by about 4%. Last year, 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 have come out against smoking.

There is an increasing consensus that Jewish law prohibits smoking. This 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). Rabbi Aaron Kotler also made clear in a letter that it is a Torah prohibition to smoke. In 2006, the centrist Orthodox Jewish law committee of the RCA ruled that smoking tobacco is prohibited by Jewish law. Other Modern Orthodox authorities, including Rabbis Ahron Soloveichik, Aharon Lichtenstein, and Gedalia Dov Schwartz have prohibited smoking. Countless other rabbis have made clear that smoking is 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. Rabbi Efraim Greenblatt challenges this point: “Who would lie down in the middle of the street and claim ‘Hashem protects the fools?!’” He and Rav Chaim David Halevi suggest that smoking can be considered in the prohibited category of suicide (Teshuvot Asei Lecha Rav 3:18). The Shulchan Aruch goes 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, he must obey: “How may a slave choose to do as he pleases, if he belongs to his Master?”

The prohibition on smoking does not only apply to individuals, but also to society. 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 God’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 cigarettes from society. 

Fortunately, more people have realized how harmful smoking is. A poll found that 45% of Americans support making cigarettes illegal (and more than 50 percent of Americans between the ages of 18-29). Nevertheless, fully outlawing cigarettes would only lead to the creation of black markets and more organized criminal activity. Rather, we must continue to raise the taxes on cigarettes, ban more advertising, and restrict more locations where smoking is permitted. These efforts should especially be directed toward adolescents. It has been estimated that half of the 6,500 new smokers who took up smoking every day in 2010 were younger than 18.

Smokers today should be viewed as “cholim” (sick individuals) who we must heal. One cannot claim that “freedom and 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 recent 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 – it’s a mitzvah! The tobacco companies invest $10 billion a year in marketing and advertising so we’re going to have to fight stronger. We need to redouble 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 a Torah imperative.

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for order on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.