Healthy Journalism

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I did quit you, baby

By now you’ve surely seen some of CDC’s new anti-smoking ads: the bald woman draping a scarf to cover her tracheotomy, the guy trying to avoid shaving the scar tissue around his stoma. Graphic stuff, these ads, touted by CDC as a way to motivate hundreds of thousands of people to quit. Supposedly 50,000 deaths will be prevented each year.

And maybe that’s right.

But as a former smoker, I can tell you that scary pictures did not make me quit.

I gravitated toward medical journalism early in my career, so I did more than read the constant flow of reports documenting the lethal and disfiguring effects of tobacco use. I wrote those stories. At dozens of scientific conferences I heard researchers catalog the ravages of smoking and saw blackened lungs splayed out on autopsy tables, projected onto screens the size of a two-car garage.

And then I’d stepped outside convention centers in Anaheim or Miami or New Orleans and lit a cigarette.

I loved smoking. It soothed me when I was anxious and picked me up when I was tired. Smoking was a way to put off doing something and a reward for actually doing it.

Sharing cigarettes was a social act, lighting them could be a form of flirtation, and excusing oneself to search for smokes ended many an awkward conversation. Plus nifty paraphernalia was involved: stylish cigarette cases, high-tech lighters, and ashtrays lifted from the best restaurants and hotels.

It was all smoke and no mirrors back then. I imagined that cigarettes might kill other people, but not me. Other people would develop fine lines around their eyes and stained fingers, but not me. All those doctors I interviewed couldn’t smell it on me or hear me inhaling over the phone.

Living in the South, as I did for much of my smoking life, no one questioned the right to smoke. Back then we smoked in movie theaters and while traveling in cars with babies. We smoked in medical offices and hospital rooms. I would walk off the tennis court after a match and light up.

Ominous warnings on cigarette packs made no difference. Heart and lung association billboards mattered not. I didn’t care that one of the cowboys from the Marlboro ads had lung cancer (or maybe two). Smoking seemed like a social affection that made one cooler and more chic, much like having balsamic vinegar in the kitchen.

And then I moved to Boston for a science writing fellowship at MIT, which also enabled me to take courses at Harvard. No sooner did I arrive in Cambridge than both schools banned indoor smoking on their campuses. Suddenly I was standing on the loading dock outside my MIT office building, learning to screen the lighter’s flame in driving snow.

Pretty soon “no smoking” signs proliferated in restaurants and businesses of all stripes. People moved away from smokers at the bus and train stops. Non-smoking friends who once supplied ashtrays at parties stopped doing it. Go outside, they said, because we don’t allow people to smoke inside. Not anymore.

People I knew and respected, and those I aspired to meet, no longer smoked. They found it smelly and stupid. When people advertised for dates in personal ads, which were just beginning to become respectable, smoking was often a deal-breaker. No smokers need apply.

Social pressure accomplished what anti-smoking campaigns and pathology slides never did: it made me want to stop.

Every time I got close, down to a handful of cigarettes a day, there was an excuse to backslide: my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the publication I worked for was sold, a relationship ended badly, I bought my first house.

But the desire to quit was there and ultimately a bad case of flu did the trick. I was too sick to heat up a can of soup, too sick to walk the dog, and too sick to smoke. For five days. And when trash pickup day rolled around, I dragged myself into the kitchen, took the carton of Marlboros off the top of the fridge, and tiptoed out to the curbside can in my bedroom slippers.

I put the carton in the can. It was March 1989, 23 years ago this month, and giving up smoking remains the single hardest thing I’ve ever done. I ate so many carrot sticks that I turned orange and chewed toothpicks like a woodchuck. I also learned that the intense craving for a smoke lasted less than 30 seconds, and if I could get through that I would be OK.

For years I had a repeated nightmare where I would take one drag and immediately be back in the grip of a two-pack a day habit.

In fact, I’ve never touched a cigarette since that March morning.

If CDC’s new anti-smoking ads can bring someone else to that point, more power to them.