QUEBEC — The current anti-smoking climate is putting too much pressure on those who can’t kick the habit while keeping from them the psychological and health benefits of smoking, charges a Quebec doctor and psychiatrist in a controversial new book that has anti-smoking groups fuming.
After years of seeing smokers — himself included — battle their addiction unsuccessfully, Jean-Jacques Bourque has decided to stand up for them.
“Smokers are not criminals,” Bourque said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “I wanted to let them know that it’s not all black and white, that there are many shades of grey when it comes to smoking,” added the retired physician.
In his book, Ecrasons la cigarette pas les fumeurs (Crush cigarettes not smokers), Bourque asserts that many smokers are not able to quit because they suffer from depression without knowing it. The nicotine contained in cigarettes acts as an antidepressant and when people stop smoking suddenly it can have dire consequences, he contends.
“If we put a lot of pressure on those people to stop smoking they can become more depressed, suicidal and even die,” said Bourque, a former president of the province’s Association of Psychiatrists.
Bourque points out to the case of a friend who he said committed suicide because he felt he was a failure for not being able to quit smoking. That friend, like many smokers according to Bourque, was vulnerable and wanted to please his relatives by trying to quit.
He also asserted that people smoke to relieve stress and that quitting suddenly can harm them. For instance, he said smokers who stop lighting up after a heart attack double their chances of dying faster than those who continued to smoke.
Bourque also notes in his book that smokers are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
He is not encouraging people to smoke but rather calls for more tolerance on the part of non-smokers.
Bourque takes aim at what he describes as propaganda from Health Canada and anti-smoking activists. He says they have resorted to fear to convince smokers to quit and overblown the effects of second-hand smoke.
“I think we need to find ways to encourage smokers to seek help to quit instead of playing on their guilt,” said Bourque, who is a pipe-smoker.
But his book is drawing fire from anti-smoking activists.
“We shouldn’t be rolling back measures to protect people’s health just to make smokers feel better about themselves,” said Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. “But certainly we need to be doing it in a way that smoking is the issue, not smokers.”
Callard said the book could be a dangerous mischief that could comfort smokers and give them the false assurance that they don’t need to quit right away.
But the president of the Quebec College of Physicians, who penned the preface of the book, embraces Bourque’s plea.
“I think we need to show compassion, empathy and understanding towards those who are dealing with such difficulties instead of setting them aside,” writes Yves Lamontagne, who noted he finally managed to quit smoking two years ago after several attempts.
This comes a week after a group of University of British Columbia researchers called on governments to review their anti-smoking policies. The academics argue that years of anti-smoking laws and campaigns have amounted to a public shaming of smokers, thus making it harder for them to quit.
They also found the stigma around smoking could lead to patients hiding their tobacco use from doctors, and feeling desperate about ever quitting.