Cars Are the New Smoking

I don’t smoke. Smoking is a disgusting, life sucking, and expensive habit. I don’t own a car either. I must admit to having the same disdain for most drivers as I do for smokers. I feel particularly loathsome towards the drivers of larger gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

I recently linked my abhorrence between smoking and cars when I stumbled upon an article about mountain bike inventor Gary Fisher. On the direction of America’s bike culture, Fisher says, “Cars are the new smoking.” Glad I wasn’t reading while pedaling, ’cause I would have fallen off my bike.

Fisher didn’t explain what he meant by comparing cars with the act of smoking cigarettes. I don’t think he had too. Society’s views on smoking have changed over the years. Smoking was once the norm. People smoked in open places and did not think twice about the health or environmental ramifications. Today smoking is proven deadly. I wonder if people’s feelings towards driving large ostentatious cars are changing. Do we now or will we later see SUVs in the same way as we see smoking today? Will we look back and see large cars being deadly to the environment and to our health? Are cars the new smoking? The statement alone boggles my brain and conjures words and images as to why, in some social circles, the two seemingly dissimilar acts are intrinsically linked.


Perhaps Fisher’s car and cigarette connection resonates so strongly due to my athletic background. As a two-time Ironman finisher, I’m no stranger to riding thousands of miles with other bike-minded non-smoking friends. Perhaps I’m still fuming over growing-up with a parent who smoked two packs a day around my younger sister and me. Either way, the general social consciousness seems to be treating owners of SUVs, Hummers, and other large vehicles with the same disdain once reserved for smokers. Since Fisher didn’t elaborate on his reasons for comparing cars to smoking,

Here are 10 reasons why cars are the new smoking:

1. Cost.

Both smoking and car ownership are expensive. Smoking cigs and driving fuel-hungry cars can burn horrendous holes in your wallet. Smokers can pay thousands a year for the cancer sticks alone, but the cost to their health is priceless. Drivers burn through thousands a year on fuel. Add the cost of the vehicle, maintenance and insurance, and your whacked with the stench of some serious cash gone up in smoke.

2. Addictive.

It took years for cigarette maker Philip Morris to admit nicotine is addictive. What about cars? One could argue that cars have a dependence on fuel consumption to function while people have a repetitive habitual reliance on cars. The increase in gas thefts certainly makes one consider how siphoning fuel from your neighbor’s gas tank could be considered addict behavior. Perhaps these fuel thieves are the new dope dealers. Drivers of gas guzzling cars are the addicts. Rather than adjust their driving lifestyle, they opt for the black market and buy the fuel stolen from their neighbors’ tanks.

3. Killers.

Smoking cigarettes will kill you. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports there are 5.4 million tobacco-related deaths every year. The situation is so deathly dire in developing nations that kagillionaires Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg have pledged $500 million to combat tobacco consumption in Asia, Africa, China, and India.

Cars are no life savers either. The WHO reports that worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million people are killed in road crashes each year and as many as 50 million are injured. Automobile related deaths are so common they fail to attract media attention in favor of less frequent types of tragedy. Sorry to be all doom and gloom.

4. Preventable.

Both smoking and automobile related deaths are preventable. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes tobacco use as “the single most important preventable risk to human health in developed countries and an important cause of premature death worldwide.”

Car crashes are also preventable. Both the World Bank and the WHO jointly launched the World Report citing that unsafe road traffic systems are seriously harming global public health and development. The report contends that the level of road traffic injury is unacceptable and that it is largely avoidable.

5. Ostracized.

Where smokers are now treated as outcasts by being legislated and banned from practicing their nicotine addiction anywhere they please, I now see SUV drivers being sent a similar social message. Drivers of environment eating Hummers are feeling the brunt of public condemnation. Some drivers find their Humvee tires slashed, windows broken, and messages scratched into the bodies of their vehicles. The public has gone so far as to label SUV and Hummer owners as “Earth Fuc$ers” with minuscule member peens. Indeed, the bigger a man’s car, the smaller his dick?

6. Second Hand Fumes.

Both cigarettes and cars cause pollution in the forms of second hand smoke and exhaust emissions. Both forms of fumes contain a range of toxic substances which can seriously impact our health, including: cancer, respiratory infections, and asthma. Both cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes are involuntarily inhaled by nonsmokers and nondrivers.

7. Peer Pressure.

One of the biggest reasons teens start to smoke is peer influence. The Lung Association says, “Over 70 per cent of teens say that having friends who smoke and/or peer pressure is the number one reason for starting to smoke.” (source).

Peer pressure can also influence car buying decisions. The notion of “keeping up with the the Joneses” is alive and well in America. Look to your neighbor’s driveway and tell me how your car measures up. Blogger Frugal Dad writes on the financial peer pressure of owning a ride rad enough to “impress strangers at a red light.” He says, “Somewhere along the line we Americans decided a car was a reflection of our wealth, a sort of mobile status symbol.” Frugal Dad fully admits that peer pressure can cause one to justify spending hundreds more a month for a “new” ride when “many times a used alternative would do just fine.”

8. Deceptive Advertising.

The tobacco industry has used deceptive advertising techniques to lure kids and teens into smoking for years. Despite being prohibited from targeting youth in the advertising of tobacco products, the tobacco companies have “increased their cigarette marketing expenditures by 125 percent” marketing to kids (source). One of the most common tactics is the introduction of candy-flavored cigarettes and smokeless tobacco (see ads), and other tobacco-like candy.

Car companies use deceptive practices as well to sell cars, trucks, and SUVs. The use of financing programs, sweepstakes contests, money off MSRP, pre-approved credit, zero down, liquidation sales, and selling below dealer’s cost have all been tested in court as deceptive practices (source). The SUV automakers have also been slapped on the chassis by their deceptive advertising in “bluring the lines between SUVs and cars.” Attorney General Charlie Crist says, “Consumers were being deceived into believing SUVs have car-like handling and performance capabilities when in fact they are more like a truck.” Too bad no one mentioned fuel consumption. Yikes.

9. Glamorized.

The movies don’t show you emphysema, but they sure glamorize smoking. Tobacco companies pay movie producers big bucks to get their deathly product on the big screen in the form of product placement. Website Smoke Free Movies shows how “Big Tobacco” companies and Hollywood have influenced and glamorized smoking by placing smoking ads in films over the years. The more people who view their favorite actor lighting up, the more likely they themselves will strike a match. To combat tobacco placement in film, the Motion Picture Association of America will now rate films that “appear to glamorize smoking” with restrictive ratings and increasingly detailed advisories (source).

Cars have been featured as the stars in many a film over the decades. But it’s the glamorization and idealization of street racing and unsafe driving which bothers me most. Films like The Fast and the Furious have been blamed by media watchdogs for increasing illegal street racing (source). Others argue that films American Graffiti and Two-Lane Blacktop set these precedents decades earlier.

10. Land use.

How much land is required and how many forests are consumed to grow, harvest, and manufacture tobacco? How many miles of pavement are required to build the infrastructure to operate motor vehicles around the world? All of this land and these resources are being consumed for what?

The tobacco farms could be allocated to growing food. The pavement plowing over farm land at an alarming rate should also cause concern for anyone requiring food to survive. In the words of Joni Mitchell, I do believe “they paved paradise, they put up a parking lot.” I have to wonder though, is Joni a smoker?

Thank you to Gary Fisher for making the connection between cars and smoking. Thanks as well to Tim O’Reilly for Twittering Fisher’s words for all us Twits out there in Twitterland.

I’m going for a bike ride now.

Your two cents:

  1. How It Is... November 26th, 2008

    I really hate the word I’m about to use. I don’t ever really use it and think it really shouldn’t even be a word to begin with. Yet as I read this article there’s no other word that comes to mind other than retarted. Comparing cars to smoking? Are you serious? Thats like trying to convince someone that the number 5 is the new color blue.

    I’m so happy that you are fortunate enough to live close enough to everything that you can bike everywhere for all your needs. That you have no family to transport from point A to point B. I can only hope they don’t get lung cancer from it.

    You never have to leave town for any reason. Never have to move across country. Your life already sounds so thrilling.

    Yet most likely you are probably like this character I work with who doesn’t own a car or have a license because of how “evil” and “useless” they are. Yet everyday she tries getting rides home from people. Always asking for ride to places on the weekend that are obviously way to far too bike.

    This article isn’t about that though is it? Its about how cars (a necessary means of transport thats very useful, perfectly safe and harmless) are the same as smoking (a fad that develops into an addiction, causes health problems, has no real helpful use in society, and is a mind-altering agent). Amazing…

    …retarted just fits.

  2. Simon Baddeley November 26th, 2008

    I divorced my car a year ago after realising what had once been a passionate affair had turned into a loveless marriage. I know the green arguments but my real reasons for abandoning the car is it’s no fun any more. Like cigarettes they were one of the 20th century’s objects of desire – a celebrity prop. Like cigarettes and strange hairdoes, automobiles are fast slipping from their prime position in the human libido, they aren’t sexy anymore. They are fast reverting to the toys they were in their early years. Then they were the indulgence of the rich. Now like cigarettes the only place they are truly desired is around parts of the world where, during the heyday of the car, most could not afford them.

  3. Michael J. McFadden November 26th, 2008

    HowItIs wrote, “cars (a necessary means of transport thats very useful, perfectly safe and harmless)”

    I’ll grant that cars can be quite useful, but for many people who use them they actually are *not* necessary, and to call them “perfectly safe and harmless” is insane.

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains”

  4. Jon Kepler November 26th, 2008

    Wow, this comment section came back to life after more than three months! I only know because I’m apparently still subscribed to the comments via e-mail.

    Simon, if your car doesn’t excite you, it’s definitely time to get a new car, not no car.

    On a different note, I absolutely DETEST bikers in large cities. Not only are their manoeuvres in traffic often suicidal, but they have very little respect for the vehicles around them in general. Biking is a horrible alternative to driving in urban areas.

  5. Simon Baddeley November 27th, 2008

    I’m sure this is how the dinosaurs felt about the small mammals.

  6. hand rolling rand November 27th, 2008

    Having a car in an urban environment makes less and less sense unless one does so for an official or business purpose.

    In a rural environment cars and trucks are a necessity, not a matter of convenience or vanity.

    Maybe in the near future civic leaders will recognize this and the costs of owning a car (in terms of insurance and taxes) will rise to offset the increase in social liability presented by cities where driving is the norm. Then again maybe not, seeing as this is Amerika where people feel entitled to guzzle gas and smoke and not smoke and go crazy in pursuit of happiness.

    For now I’m happy riding my bike, riding in cars and rolling my smokes.

  7. Clive February 4th, 2009

    Hi from the UK

    There’s some talk above about us “Europeans” driving small non-guzzling cars.

    Sure we do.

    So will you North American guys when you have to pay 4 times as much for your gasoline as you do at the moment. Don’t worry Fox – the days of the Hummer et al are numbered.

  8. PedestrianMe February 26th, 2009

    I love this post so much.

  9. Simon Baddeley March 2nd, 2009

    I got rid of my car and use my folding bicycle pus public transport for most travel. Fun and cheap – saving me lots to spend on what I want, like cigarettes (:))

  10. Shaun October 23rd, 2009

    Great post! I wholeheartedly agree! I would argue that no one NEEDS an SUV. In most cases, a station wagon or compact minivan will suffice for a large family, and buying an SUV for “safety” only contributes to the Arms Race out on the freeway (improving your chances of survival by one-upping other drivers). I can understand having to own a truck for certain types of work- especially agriculture- but even then most people could get by with a smaller Toyota truck. The “need” for large vehicles is mainly psychological in nature.

    Going still further, people who say they “need” a car because of where they live should not have chosen to live there in the first place. I would never live in a neighborhood or participate in a lifestyle where owning a car is imperitive to my survival, and anyone who does so is just contributing to the problem of car dependence.

    I hope more people begin to see the CLEAR CONNECTION between cigarette and car dependence. Cars- and the ugly byproducts of cars (strip malls, freeways, drive-thrus, gas stations, roads through otherwise beautiful landscapes, sprawl, etc)- are every bit as ugly and disgusting as a pack of smokes. If cigarettes killed as many innocent children every year as cars do, and in as violent and gruesome a manner, they would be eradicated.

    Cars are old technology, and we need to move on as a society. High tech passenger and freight rail, light rail, walkable car-independent neighborhoods, pedestian/bicycle-only throughfares… these are things we can do to improve health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and deal with future energy constraints. Leave the fossil fuel-burning trucks and cars to the people who need them (ie. farmers, police, firemen, military).

    Thank you for your post. I hope the car-driving world catches up to you at some point. You’re ahead of your time.

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