July 11, 2013

Ciggie Stigma: The Cons & Not-Quite-Pros of Smoking. ~ C.W. Smith

I have a hard time nixing the habit completely, and I think it’s because I can’t vilify cigarettes.

I don’t smoke anymore. I’m not sure that’s true—we could squabble over the veracity of that statement.

If I purchased two packs of cigarettes within the past three weeks, can I say I don’t smoke, even if I shared and threw a significant portion away? Does the statement hinge on “smoke” as a straightforward verb, or in this case, can it refer to the habit?

We recovered cigarette fiends may turn our backs on breathing in grey air, but we continue to live in the grey of ambiguity. I wax poetic, but that’s my purple-prose way of saying that. For most recovered smokers, life after quitting the habit is a game of exceptions and potential relapses.

If you’re a former or current smoker, then I needn’t identify the tie that binds the following: traffic, old friends from out of town, weddings, sad love songs alone on Valentine’s Day, a trip to a new bar where you try an unexpectedly potent IPA, then one turns into two, and outside there’s a convenience store inconveniently within walking distance.

There’s nothing quite like cigarette addiction. When the drug in question is as readily available and, despite changing attitudes, as acceptable as nicotine, relapse is a fuzzy term.

Cue the anecdotal evidence: I went two and a half years without buying cigs. I “quit.” As a quitter, I allotted myself the occasional cigarette or right at weddings and selected nights on the town. So long as I didn’t buy the toxins I inhaled into my lungs, they didn’t count.

My extended record’s funeral dirge was the confluence of a breakup, unemployment, and a cross-country move. I’m not thrilled, but I see no reason for beating myself up about it either. Recidivism among smokers hangs at about 90 percent. Nicotine is notoriously addictive, and the withdrawal on par with dental surgery.

When I kicked the habit, I spent an entire day couch-bound and incapable of comprehending the car chases in a James Bond movie.

Quitting is no walk in the park. Healthy lungs make it possible to enjoy walks in the park, but that’s an easy truth to lose sight of. By some obscene trick of cognitive alchemy, unfavorable circumstances make lung tar seem like a good idea. If you’re bemused by the brain’s willingness to destroy vital tissue and pander to ghastly cigarette taxes for a dopamine boost, but recall that this marvelous organ is also willing to roast itself alive to get rid of bacteria.

Fortunately, in the wavy grey world of the smoker, two packs don’t have to signify a relapse. If this has been a relapse, I can stop now and avoid dry mouth and a second go being belittled by action movies. I plan on stopping. Turns out I prefer not paying money to hack up iridescent gunk.

I have a hard time nixing the habit completely, and I think it’s because I can’t vilify cigarettes.

Aversion is a powerful tool for quitters; I know erstwhile smokers who’d sooner donate money to Casey Anthony than touch another cancer-stick. Unfortunately, I harbor a little romance for smoking.

I like the rush, so does anyone who’s ever succumbed to the habit in the first place. My problem is, I also enjoy the symbolism.

Cigarettes have been a constant in my life. I grew up in Virginia, tobacco country, among a predominantly female working class family. Nearly everyone I grew up around smoked. They smoked everywhere, and they smoked often. My mother adores cigarettes. Despite the health problems they’ve caused her, including scary-bad sleep apnea and a mini-stroke in the 1990’s, she genuinely enjoys smoking. I don’t think I enjoy anything at that level; I envy her for that.

Ironically, instances of cancer in my family have occurred among the non-smokers. The women in my family tend to life long, tobacco-rich lives (The men don’t fare as well, but there aren’t many of us to constitute a reliable sample).

Consequently, cigarettes weren’t stigmatized for me.

The key problem I have is avoiding cigarettes—beyond the family associations. And the late twentieth century advertising I absorbed as a child left me with the confusing delusion that smoking would transform me into a seductive half-cowboy, half-camel demigod, and that I don’t have any interest in living a long life. I’m personally aiming for fifty, and if that’s where the curtain falls, I’m fine with that.

Of course, people my age make the sweeping declaration they don’t want to grow old. We tend to change our tunes down the road. I don’t expect I’ll be any different, but that doesn’t change my present attitude. If it’s youthful ignorance—”Hey! I’m youthful.”—there’s also good evidence I’m chronically ignorant.

This brings me to my final point. The campaign against smoking has, in my opinion, directed too much energy on “quantity” arguments.

The better argument against smoking isn’t quantity, but quality.

This may be the result of a disconnection between the health-conscious personalities who drive anti-smoking campaigns and the defiant personalities who choose to supplement their lives with deathly fumes. To the health-conscious mind, especially fitness-savvy type, the quantity argument makes more sense.

Life is about succeeding, and what better measure of health-success is there than longevity?

Quantity isn’t a prize for everyone. To a “living in the moment” mindset, the existential difference between wheezing to death at forty and dying mid-serve as an octogenarian tennis maven is negligible. Anti-smoking media rely on stories of devastating illnesses to sell their cause. These stories provide life-quality arguments, but they’re ultimately life-quantity arguments, and are so far removed from the smoker’s everyday experience that they reek of cheap fear tactics.

Anti-smoking campaigns are afraid to acknowledge anything but the ills of smoking. The cons outweigh the pros, but c’mon. Expose a rebellious teenage mind to unbridled scare tactics, and watch them flock to the corner store. Why do people smoke? It feels good—mostly at first, and only sort of, but it does. Cigarettes are used as ersatz antidepressants, on-the-job stimulants, and catalysts for conversation.

We should acknowledge the currently hush-hush “pros” and counter them with practical accounts of how cigarettes detract from life-quality.

Here’s an example: If I smoke four cigarettes tonight half-sauced on house wine, would I enjoy those cigarettes? I probably would. Would I enjoy them enough to make up for my chest smarting tomorrow, the dehydration, the awful taste in my mouth, or the tingling in my extremities from poor circulation? How about having to try harder to breathe on the walk home?

If we want to bring in a little long-term qualitative damage, let’s forget cancer and heart disease and go straight for the naughty bits: Smoking could cost me the ability to achieve and maintain an erection.

Due to overdone anti-smoking melodrama, very real and serious diseases have become cliché. I have a clear memory of watching a Truth commercial in a bar. I lit a fresh cig because an emaciated man in a wheelchair warned me not to. Blood pumps from my heart and engorges the spongy Happy Days tissue. I’d rather keep it that way.

That’s my quality argument: If my sex organs survive my questionable relapses, I’ll to my all to be kinder to them moving forward.

I’d surely benefit from inhalable antidepressants, and I’d enjoy the confidence of regarding myself an amorous cowboy/camel hybrid. But sexual satisfaction for yellow teeth is a foolish trade.



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Assistant Ed: Josie Huang/Ed: Bryonie Wise


{Photo: via Pinterest)


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