This article is inspired by Jahanshah Javid’s recent essay, “Think Tank”.
I grew up in an era when smoking was cool. Movie stars looked so much better holding a cigarette between their fingers, not to mention James Dean, placing one loosely in the corner of his mouth. Office employees smoked at their desks and even stores didn’t mind smoking customers. At parties and pubs, the air was so thick with smoke that it was hard to see who was there. Etiquette dictated that a gentleman first offer you a cigarette and light it for you. Which would explain the array of lighters -not just the cheap Bic, but Dunhill and later gold DuPont that cost a fortune.
Public places not only welcomed smokers, they catered to them. Hotels started to hire people to swipe their logo on the fine sand that would be the cigarette butt receptacles. Good restaurants changed your ashtrays practically after each one you smoked and toilets were equipped with a built-in ashtray next to the roll of toilet paper. Airlines, trains and taxis had a tiny ashtray next to each passenger. People actually paid attention to the no-smoking sign during takeoff and the smoke-free section was but a few seats. You could even enjoy your cigarette in theaters - save multi-level ones like the Opera in Paris, where you had to take your smoking down to the mezzanine level. In the cinemas, cigarette vendors passed by the aisles in case you ran out, and the smoky air made the column of light from the projector even more impressive.
In winter, with car windows shut tight, adults smoked while kids coughed because back then, ‘second hand’ was a word saved for used cars. As parents, we practiced the same – that is, until our kids formed their own coalition and stopped us!
I went from brand to brand, starting with the cheap ‘Homa’ and ‘Oshno’ in Iran before being upgraded to Winston. During London’s gloomy days, Players No.6 fit my student budget perfectly-- though I did splurge on a pack of Dunhill now and then, just to look good at parties. And finally, I made my way to America where the good old Virginia Slims topped them all. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” said the commercials. I must say, through all the change, I managed to resist any and all menthols as that seemed like an oxymoron.
I remember in 1978 at a Dental convention in Colorado Springs, I was shocked to learn that I could not smoke anywhere in that city. I returned to Chicago with stories about this and while my colleagues and I enjoyed a puff in our shared office at Northwestern Dental School, it was clear why some of us would skip the next Colorado meeting! Over the past thirty years the anti smoking laws have done wonders. However, the country that remains the main manufacturer of tobacco did nothing to prevent its use until it was too late for some of us.
When anti smoking ads came to television, my first reaction was to light one and switch channels. But gradually, the message sank in. The most effective message for me was the doctor who showed an X-rays of a lung cancer patient and said, “This patient has a month to live, but if he stops smoking, he may have a year.” Then he looked right at the camera adding, “If I said this to you, you’d stop immediately. So why not do it before I have to say that?”
Then again, those are commercials and I don’t pay much attention to any of them. Maybe it was the way my kids grunted as I lit up during carpools, or maybe it began years later with my daughter’s smoke-free apartment, sending me to the street on cold Rhode Island mornings. Whatever it was, at some point, I just knew that none of my excuses justified the habit. In a matter of months, all the “I’m stressed-I don’t want to gain weight- I need to relax” turned unacceptable. No one, except for other smokers, understood me and they soon seemed to be the only ones who loved me!
Finally my husband and I made an appointment at a clinic that promised to make us quit through hypnosis. That proved to be a total disaster. Five minutes into the session, my husband was so tired that he actually fell asleep and as he started to snore, I was laughing too hard it was impossible to send me into any kind of trans! On the following visit, the doctor studied my answers to his questionnaire and honestly told me I’d fail. “People have several reasons for being smokers. Medicine has listed ten of them,” he said sadly. “Here you have presented eleven!”
Next we tried the gum and believe me, nothing tastes worse. The patch seemed better, except it gave me a surge of nicotine while taking away the social pleasure of smoking. I missed the elegance of it, the ritual, the company of others. Above all, when I found myself amid a new crowd, without my cigarette I had nothing to hide behind. Each time I gave it up for a few months, something else made me sad/stressed/tired/angry enough to go back and oh, the freedom in that first puff!
The doctor who told me I’d be a smoker for life knew what he was talking about. I am. I’m a smoker who loves the smell of cigarettes, loves to sit with friends who smoke, misses the ritual and enjoys that first puff. But maybe somebody out there needs to hear this: The temptation will always be there, but luckily, it passes as quickly as it comes. Parties end, other smokers disperse and soon you will be in control again. All you need is a little patience and a reminder that the moment shall soon pass. When the temptation is too much, be the smoker who decides to skip this one! I should know, because I’m a smoker who hasn’t touched a cigarette in more than seven years.
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