Smoking and Overeating — Big and Bad

We are looking at the similarities between two public health menaces, nicotine and the overconsumption of food, that threaten to bring on an obesity epidemic, the combined weight of which could knock the planet off its axis. (Just kidding. Or not.)

As killers, smoking and obesity both have a lot of patience, and will prolong the torture for years before finally finishing off the victim. Paradoxically, that is a good thing, because the time span gives a person many opportunities to get off a bad track and onto a better one. It means that, as causes of death, both are preventable.

Both cost a lot of money. According to the McKinsey Global Institute,

Obesity costs the global economy about $2 trillion annually or 2.8% of global GDP, which is comparable to the costs of smoking or of armed violence, war, and terrorism combined.

The financial argument is certainly valid, as medical bills cost society an enormous amount. The illnesses of people who don’t receive assistance from government funds cost society a lot, too, because they go bankrupt and are no longer good consumers, so everyone else gets poorer, except the insurance corporations.

A Canadian study calculated the amount that could be saved by implementing tobacco policy interventions, noting that “these numbers pale relative to the projected costs for medical care, productivity losses, and the cost of premature deaths if the obesity epidemic is not controlled.”

Both smoking and overconsumption can be annoying to live with. A housemate who smokes will stink the place up so everybody’s clothes smell funky. Cigarettes will fall out of ashtrays and leave burn scars on the credenza. A compulsively overeating housemate might leave the kitchen in a mess. Other residents might find blocks of cheese hidden in bizarre places.

Obesity can afflict the body with systemic inflammation, and so can smoking. Teenagers, who are convinced of their own invincibility, find it very difficult to internalize warnings about the danger of either nicotine or obesogenic eating patterns. And if they do worry about excessive weight gain, it tends to become a different and separate problem.

Another similarity is that large numbers of experts consider them both to be addictions. Massive industries have grown up around both smoking cessation and the curbing of compulsive overeating. The other side of that coin is the splendid growth of voluntary association in the quest for health, typified by such organizations as the no-cost 12-Step programs.

Devotion to smoking and overeating are so similar, they often replace one another. The overall stats since the 1950s show that smoking has decreased, while obesity grows and grows to where an actual one-third of Americans are classified as obese. Some people are able to curb their recreational eating only by smoking, which keeps hunger at bay and fills some kind of metaphysical void. The sad truth is that many people who quit smoking will take up eating instead, and put on multiple unnecessary pounds.

In his “Fighting Obesity: What We Learned From The Battle On Smoking,” Tom Fudge included several narratives from people who quit smoking and gained problematic amounts of weight. One reason is that the taste buds, long bludgeoned into passivity by heat and harsh chemicals, begin to regain their powers.

The journalist quoted Dr. Ken Fujioka, director of the Scripps Clinic Center for
Weight Management:

When you stop smoking cigarettes, two things happen. One is that most people eat about 225 calories more a day. But the other thing they do is, they actually burn less calories when they come off of cigarettes. So they burn 15 percent less, which is very significant.

Virginia Slims, anyone?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obesity in America,”, October 2018
Source: “The Foodservice Industry’s Social Responsibility Regarding the Obesity Epidemic, Part I:,”, 2010
Source: “Fighting Obesity: What We Learned From The Battle On Smoking,”, 06/09/17
Photo credit: reXraXon on Visualhunt/CC BY

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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