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Question 140: May a farmer continue planting tobacco?

I make a living and support my family by growing tobacco, but I know regular use is deadly. I quit years ago. Since then, I have discouraged my family and friends from starting and have urged the smokers among them to quit.

I sell my crop to a major tobacco company; most of it goes into cigarettes, some into other products. The company advertises in a way plainly meant not only to win smokers from other brands but to get young people to take up smoking. I could not do that in good conscience.

Nevertheless, I’ve continued planting tobacco up to now. If I could make an adequate income from a different crop or could sell the farm and support my wife and children in some other way, I would. But I’ve explored the possibilities, and none of them is promising.

I have reasons for thinking it is not wrong to continue planting tobacco. First, I cannot stop the company from advertising as it does, and so I am not responsible for that. Second, people have been warned about the risks of using tobacco, and nobody has to do it. Third, if I quit planting tobacco, I honestly do not believe it would save even one life. Fourth, some people do use tobacco only occasionally, and there is no evidence they are taking any significant risk; so, it’s not as though there were no possible legitimate use for what I produce. Finally, the government has not done what it should: put an end to tobacco advertising, do everything possible to discourage young people from starting to smoke, and tax cigarettes more heavily.

A neighbor who retired two years ago says all my reasons are just rationalizations. He is sorry he did not quit growing tobacco years ago. That worries me, since, though he is not a Catholic, he is probably the most decent and Christian man I know.


This question concerns cooperation in gravely self-injurious behavior. The regular and typical use of tobacco is morally wrong, and, because deadly, always grave matter in my judgment. The first three reasons the questioner gives for judging it not wrong to continue planting tobacco do show that doing so is not unfair to tobacco users. But even if some people use tobacco legitimately, the questioner cooperates with typical users. If he carefully avoids in any way contributing to the promotion of regular and typical use, he does not cooperate formally. Because his material cooperation impedes his witness against typical tobacco use, he should try again to find an alternative way of making a minimally adequate living. But if he cannot, he may, in my judgment, continue planting tobacco.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I doubt that your reflections are mere rationalizations. Your moral earnestness in questioning what you have been doing strongly suggests that up to now you have not chosen to act against your conscience in growing and selling your crop. Like growers back through the generations, you have worked hard and made an honest living. Unaware of tobacco’s deadliness, they were innocent of wrongdoing; you have become aware of the consequences of using tobacco and are asking questions because your conscience is sound.342

If using tobacco ever was rational, surely today there are stronger reasons for not using it: the danger of addiction, the risk of very bad effects on health, the financial cost, and the impact on others—both those who imitate the bad example and those who are harmed by others’ tobacco use or simply find it objectionable.343 Therefore, in my judgment, using tobacco not only is foolish but morally wrong. How wrong? As you say, regular and typical use of tobacco is deadly. For that reason alone, I believe, such use, as against occasional light use, always is grave matter.344 Moreover, the gravity of typical tobacco use often is aggravated by other factors, such as bad example to young people.

The first three reasons you propose for judging it not wrong for you to continue planting and selling tobacco bear on whether doing that is unfair to tobacco users. You plainly are not responsible for the despicable advertising of the tobacco company to which you sell your crop, and nothing you can do would stop it. While you do grow and sell tobacco knowing that people will misuse it, they have been warned, as you point out, and will get it from others if not from you. Everything considered, I agree that you are not being unfair to users—that is, you are not violating the Golden Rule—by continuing to plant and sell tobacco.

The requirement of fairness, however, is not the only form moral responsibility takes; you also should think about the bad consequences of continuing to grow and market tobacco, not least for typical tobacco users. You could respond with your fourth point: There might be a legitimate use of tobacco, that is, light and occasional use, which has not been shown to be harmful. For the sake of argument, I grant the factual claim that there are people whose use of tobacco is harmless. But such light users certainly are few, and you cannot cause your crop to be used only by them. Therefore, in growing and marketing tobacco, you almost always cooperate with the seriously self-destructive, and so objectively gravely wrong, behavior of typical smokers.

What is your moral responsibility with respect to this cooperation? It is grave if you intend the wrongful behavior. That would be so if you did anything in order to maintain the market for your product—for example, if you supported legislation that would protect tobacco companies against lawsuits or worked against measures, such as increased cigarette taxes, that would discourage smoking. But if, while avoiding such activities, you merely accept as a given the typical use of tobacco that creates a profitable market for it and strictly limit your involvement in the industry to growing and selling your crop, you need not intend the wrongful use people make of the tobacco you market.

But even if you do not intend tobacco users’ self-destructive behavior, are you justified in contributing to it? The other considerations I have mentioned do not, in my judgment, preclude your continuing to plant tobacco. However, effective witness against its use is needed, and your witness, which could save some people’s lives, would be especially credible. You do well to discourage your family and friends from starting smoking tobacco and to urge the smokers among them to quit. But you should not limit your concern to those near and dear; you should extend the same witness to other people insofar as you can. People who do not know you well are hardly likely to believe that you really think using tobacco is wrong as long as you continue making your living from it. You would convey the message more effectively if you stopped planting and explained your reasons for doing so. In my judgment, therefore, you should explore more carefully other ways of making a living, and should be prepared to accept a lower standard of living and take significant risks to extricate yourself from the tobacco industry so that you will be able to work more effectively against its typical use.

Nevertheless, provided you carefully avoid doing anything that would involve intending the typical use of tobacco, I do not think you and other tobacco farmers are obliged to quit if you really have no other way of earning enough to meet the genuine needs of yourselves and your families.

Someone might argue that alcohol abuse does even more harm than tobacco use, so that, if the preceding analysis is correct, any conscientious person who now encourages the use of alcoholic beverages also must stop doing that. The argument, however, is fallacious because the analogy is not sound. Alcoholic beverages can be and often are used rightly; their abuse, though widespread, is incidental, so that people who promote alcohol use need not intend its abuse. Of course, some do intend it, and they should repent. Perhaps some could not profit without promoting alcohol abuse and so cannot help intending it. They ought to give up their profitable involvement with alcohol. People who need not and do not intend the abuse of alcohol, however, may continue to promote and profit from its use, provided they do what they reasonably can to prevent and discourage abuse.

342. The tobacco companies, rather than the growers, reap most of the profits and are morally responsible for intending cigarette smoking; see Richard Kluger, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

343. See Smoking Tobacco and Health: A Factbook, DHHS Publication No. (CDC) 87–8397, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Center for Disease Control, 1989); Richard Peto et al., Mortality from Smoking in Developed Countries 1950–2000: Indirect Estimates from National Vital Statistics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

344. See LCL, 537–38, including n. 136.