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More than half a century has passed since Luther Terry released the landmark U.S. surgeon general’s report on smoking and health.
Since then, smoking in the U.S. has declined dramatically. Nonetheless, roughly 50 million Americans still smoke.
Tobacco's 'Fantastic Voyage'
If anyone should have been immune to taking up smoking, it was me.
As a prepubescent child, I absorbed the lessons about the importance of living healthily that my parents instilled. At age 10, I got them to quit smoking after the first surgeon general report came out — although I’m sure they would have done it on their own, if not quite as quickly. Early on in my writing career, I wrote a “fantastic voyage” article about all the carcinogens in tobacco, where they went in the body, and what nefarious things they did when they got there. Little did I ever suspect I would become briefly but definitely addicted.
The germ of the habit occurred when I was medical writer for Insight Magazine. Dennis, the head copy editor, smoked like a chimney.
“How’s that cigarette?” I’d tease him every morning when I arrived at work. “Not long enough!” he’d say. Or, “Not as good as the first one.” It became our way of bonding.
One day he said, “You want to try it?”
Curious, I took a puff. It gave a powerful kick, like a turbocharger. But it was not something I felt I needed.
But one Sunday, a few years later, I needed it. I’d gone to the car races at Summit Point, West Virginia, with my friend, Don, a former racer, and his wife Eva, who smoked. I’d slept little the week before, and D.C., where I lived at the time, was being its usual oppressively hot, humid summer self. By mid-afternoon I’d gotten so sleepy that I was getting ready to curl up in the back of my car and snooze. Then I remembered Dennis’ cigarette. I asked Eva if I could finish one of hers. A couple of puffs, and I was wide awake, once again enjoying being with my friends.
My FDA Cigarette
Around this time, I was working for daily biotech news publication, regularly covering meetings of the Advisory Committee to the head of the Food and Drug Administration. These meetings were boring. They took place in a windowless room of the incredibly ugly, mid-'50s institutional style Parklawn building. As soon as they started, off went the lights, and on went the Powerpoints.
At that point, no matter how much coffee I’d had, my head would start to sag.
So the next time I had to cover one of these meetings, I bummed a cigarette. I took several puffs, and then tossed it. This time, I remained painlessly alert after the lights went out.
I took to bumming cigarettes while I waited for the FDA meetings to start, and ultimately I bought my own pack.
It lasted me at least three years. I never smoked outside of an FDA meeting, despite the fact that my brain functioned so well on nicotine.
At least not until the spring of 1998. That year was fixing to be a bad one. My relationship with Mary, which had begun almost a year earlier, with lots of sex, followed by hours-long conversations, had faltered after a couple of months, and gone seriously south during that September. Unable to see that we were truly a terrible match, we worked to try to resurrect the wonders of the first six weeks with a therapist who I can only figure was simply happy to take our money.
As someone who wrote fairly widely about smoking, I knew that people with ADD self-medicated with cigarettes. So one morning, I tried taking a few puffs from my second FDA pack, just before starting work. A few puffs after breakfast soon turned into a few puffs several times a day, and after a couple of months, I was actually smoking three cigarettes a day.
A Seduction, With Espresso
To understand its seductive powers, think of a cigarette as your lover who comes up behind you and massages your shoulders, or gives you a warm hug. And at the same time, as an idealized cup of espresso that goes off like a symphony in your mouth. There’s actually a scientific book on all this called "Smoking: The Artificial Passion." Despite the author’s warnings about 2 million deaths annually, he makes smoking sound alluring. Or as a doctor once said to me, “Nicotine is a great drug. It’s just that the cigarette is a terrible drug delivery device.”
And so it was that I became hooked. I didn’t consider myself a smoker; yet I realized I couldn’t easily stop. And here I was, in August, on Cape Cod, staying with my parents for a month, my office installed in their summer house, and I was sneaking cigarettes in the backyard. It was crazy. So one day, I decided I would stop.
That effort began on a Sunday, and lasted one miserable week. The following Saturday I was driving up to southern New Hampshire, for a friend’s 50th birthday party, a fun occasion where I knew I would meet a lot of great people. And here I was, in my beloved sporty car, with five on the floor, driving (my favorite nonsexual and nonsocial activity) to this wonderful event. And I was ready to cry. So I stopped at a convenience store and bought a pack. I opened it, pulled out a nicotine stick, pushed in the cigarette lighter — something that all cars used to have — and mated the two. I took a puff, and immediately felt my body become infused with peace and love.
(That metaphorical peace and love is in part a reduction in aggression and irritability, according to “The Artificial Passion.”)
I realized that it was the wrong time for me to quit. I would have to wait for my life to improve before I made another attempt. And perhaps this is a lesson for other would-be quitters.
Meanwhile, during the fall, my relationship was slowly unraveling. Sex, which was rare, all but ended, and in mid-October, Mary decided we would no longer even spend nights together, although for some screwy reason we were still talking about how we would try to pull ourselves back together again.
(Obviously, we should have split up already, but behavioral economists tell us that most people are more afraid of loss than they are optimistic about gain, and I am perhaps particularly loss-averse when it comes to the people in my life.)
Then, at a Christmas party in early December, I met a woman who made her interest clear. She approached our coupling with an enthusiasm I hadn’t known in almost a year and a half, hugging me and caressing me, and in turn, giving herself to all my desires. I felt wanted and wonderfully satisfied.
After that first night, I didn’t even think about the cigarettes anymore. I never smoked another one.
David C. Holzman writes from Lexington, Mass., on science, medicine, energy, environment and cars. He is Journal Highlights editor for the American Society for Microbiology and won a Plain Language/Clear Communication Award in 2011 from the National Institutes of Health.
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