The first and last time I tried smoking a cigarette was on Purim night when I was in 10th grade. It was the cool thing to do in yeshiva circles in celebration of the holiday, but fortunately I was a failure. In truth, getting drunk was another Purim rite, but drinking was frowned on the rest of the year. Smoking, though, was common practice for the rabbis and the older students. It still is in yeshivas — and plenty of other schools — around the country.
What's upsetting is that all these years later, when so much more has been learned about how lethal smoking can be, teenagers still feel the social pressure to light up.
Two recent major studies have shown that while adults are cutting back on smoking, there has been a sharp increase in the percentage of teens who smoke, leading health experts to blame advertising, lax attention to legal restrictions and social pressure. The Clinton administration, in a rare move of boldness, is taking on the tobacco industry in an effort to keep more youngsters from the smoking addiction.
What is noteworthy is the clash between business and ethical interests, striking a chord for some in the Jewish community. Indeed, there are several Jewish aspects to the smoking issue. A number of rabbinical authorities, here and in Israel, have asserted that smoking cigarettes is prohibited by the Torah. They cite biblical and rabbinic passages that make clear that a person may not do anything to his body that is harmful to his health. We do not own our bodies, God does. And just as suicide is prohibited for this reason, so is smoking cigarettes, according to this position.
"I cannot understand how people who claim to be observant of Torah…can allow themselves to smoke cigarettes when it has been established beyond a shadow of doubt that cigarettes are poisonous and have many destructive effects on the body," writes Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., founder and medical director of an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center near Pittsburgh. He has called on rabbis of synagogues and yeshivas, where smoking is particularly prevalent, to ban smoking on religious grounds — though not with much success. (Anyone who has been to Israel and seen the level of smoking there can attest to the fact that the society is at least a generation behind ours in terms of responding to health and environmental concerns.)
Opposition to smoking is one of the few issues that Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders see eye to eye on. The Conservative movement has taken a strong position against smoking based on the biblical passage that one may not endanger one's health. And the Reform movement, prodded by teens themselves, has come out against smoking as a menace to society and one's own health.
But Henry Everett, a New York businessman and philanthropist who is a leading anti-smoking advocate, is troubled by the fact that there is so little stigma in the Jewish community attached to those who control cigarette companies. Five years ago he launched a campaign to urge Lester Pollack to resign either from the board of Lorillard Corp., a major cigarette company, or from his position as president of the Jewish Community Centers Association of America, where health is a major issue.
Pollack did neither, and went on to chair the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for three years. He has since stepped down from Lorillard, but for unrelated reasons, he says.
Everett, a member of the board of directors of New York's Jewish Week, says he has no personal animus against Pollack but insists there should be a level of "moral outrage" against those who profit from the sale of tobacco products. He is particularly critical of the uncritical treatment in our community of the Tisch family, the most prominent Jewish philanthropic family in New York, whose Loews Corp. owns Lorillard, makers of True, Newport, Kent and other cigarettes.
Some in the Jewish community say Everett is obsessed with the smoking issue and are weary of his efforts to stir it up. Others credit him for his Don Quixote-like battle, and acknowledge that Jews are overly represented in the top echelons of the tobacco industry, whose products cause the deaths of about 400,000 Americans a year, according to the World Health Organization.
The basic issue for us is not Lester Pollack, Henry Everett or the Tisch family, but the Jewish ethical parameters of smoking, from preservation of health to using "tainted" dollars for charitable purposes. As more and more teenagers take up cigarette smoking, our rabbis and Jewish leaders should step up their efforts to dramatize the dangers of smoking. They should explain that the Torah, in its wisdom, warned us not to bring harm to our bodies, which were created in God's image.
For a people obsessed with survival, we should be among the vanguard of those working to prevent young people from risking their lives for a puff of smoke.