“It takes a special person to quit an addictive behavior.” —M. Melinda Pitts

It sounds heretical, but it’s true: There are worse things than smoking. 

I’m a registered nurse and nursing instructor, so I suppose you’d expect me to toe the party line about this matter. I mean, there’s no denying that tobacco is an addictive killer, that its use can lead to lung disease, various cancers, and other related health problems – not to mention the secondary effect it has on innocent bystanders who are compelled to participate in the smoker’s habit.

But I insist: you could do worse.

Take tanning for instance – intentional tanning that is. There’s an entire industry built up around the illusion that intentionally damaging our skin until it changes color is somehow beautiful. Plus, our culture has bought into this madness wholesale, and it’s now accepted wisdom that a “healthy glow” is desirable – even preferred – to a pale northern-European complexion. My students even argue that a tan is somehow protective – that acquiring a “base tan” at the salon before heading off to Florida for spring break will prevent skin damage and sunburn. Yet the science is irrefutable: tanning is itself skin damage, not to mention the main cause of skin cancer – a nasty killer in its own right.

I’m not trying to argue that skin cancer is somehow more prevalent or more deadly than lung disease – it’s clearly not. My point is that both kinds of cancer are lethal, and yet tanning, unlike smoking, seems to get a pass because it retains a measure of social acceptance and allure.

Pity the smoker on the other hand. Nobody envies him or his filthy habit. He’s hated and ostracized, relegated to street corners in the middle of winter to indulge his dirty habit outside his “Smoke Free” office. In many cities, he can’t even smoke in bars or taverns any more, which means that, aside from the car and his home – where his wife and children rightfully have some say in the matter – there are vanishingly few places to light up.

So why doesn’t he just quit?

He knows it’s bad for him and for those around him; he knows it will rob him of health and longevity; he sees how much money he wastes on it. Yet he can’t quite give it up – although he’s tried, believe me, he’s tried. He has tossed out his cigarettes and shouted, “No more!” a dozen, two dozen times. Then, some stressful situation comes up, a reversal of fortunes or a collapsed relationship, and his Achilles’ heel is ripe for a renewed injury.

As an ex-smoker, I speak from experience.

It’s an addiction, after all. That’s why smoking cessation has become such a constant in healthcare. It’s not enough to simply present folks with the facts about smoking and urge them to cease. You also have to provide them with strategies and support, and acknowledge that it will take time – and probably multiple set-backs – to vanquish the compulsion. Perseverance pays off.

The same goes for quitting pornography. Applying the addiction label to porn is controversial, but there’s no question that it’s incredibly destructive – to individuals, marriages, and families alike – and it clearly leads to obsessive, anti-social behaviors. Still, like tanning, pornography has become a social norm – an integrated dimension of our sex-obsessed culture and defended as personal expression. “As the culture becomes increasingly sexualized,” writes Kathleen Naab, “pornography becomes more acceptable, with statistics showing that as many as two-thirds of college-age men and half of college-age women say viewing porn is an ‘acceptable way to express one’s sexuality.’” The Fifty Shades of Grey blitz – books, movies, even soundtracks and gift items – is only the most obvious manifestation of the new porn tolerance.

Unlike tanning, however, most of the pornography sub-culture is out of sight because it’s now easily accessed online in private. In the old days, men (and we’re still talking mainly men here) would risk being spotted if they patronized seedy establishments or smut purveyors. Not anymore. Today, porn is available 24/7, and with the advent of mobile devices, it can be accessed virtually anywhere, any time – and out of sight.

So it may be out of sight, but its evil effects are hardly out of mind. Pastors and counselors acknowledge that pornography is a significant contributing factor in a majority of troubled marriages and divorce cases these days, and consequently its negative impact on family life and society in general is incalculable. What’s more, any priest will tell you that it is uncommon for men to leave the confessional without mentioning porn in these times – and that’s just the men who actually get to confession at all.

Thus, it’s no overstatement to say that porn dependence is an epidemic, and while it may not directly kill the body like other addictions, it certainly kills the soul.

The bishops recognize this, and they’re working on a statement that will candidly address the problem and (hopefully) lay out a comprehensive strategy to combat it. That statement should be out this fall, but in the meantime, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted has issued his own call to arms. It’s a pastoral exhortation to men, and it doesn’t pull any punches.

Olmsted writes that porn use and masturbation are “hidden and narcissistic habits” that “train the man in a direction that is the exact opposite of love,” for “he learns to settle for self-absorbed, sterile pleasures” instead of real love which is selfless and fruitful. For married men, the implications are even more serious. “Pornography not only leaves a man in danger of Hell, but it also destroys the bonds with his spouse,” writes Olmsted. “In other words, think of pornography as just as serious and no less grave than adultery.”

Here’s where the connection with smoking and other addictions comes in. Tobacco is still legal and in abundant supply, but smoking rates are going down, thanks in part to successful tobacco control strategies. “There are still people smoking out there,” says Dr. Peter Kleponis. “But if you talk to young people today about smoking, they’ll tell you it’s disgusting, and they don’t want to do it.” Through education, advocacy, and activism, we have to shift the perception of porn use in the same direction: from being somehow liberating and healthy, like a summer tan, to being something awful and unthinkable – like a pack-a-day dependency.

And we have to begin with ourselves: Zero tolerance. Accountability. Confession, over and over again. “Even if the darkness seems insurmountable,” Bishop Olmsted insists, “Christ never abandons us.” He never gives up on us, and neither can we, no matter what the addiction. Lives – and souls – are at stake.

For help or more information, go to Integrity Restored or RECLAIM.