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.


Blogger Maia Dobson said...

Your story is quite inspiring. I know how difficult it is to quit smoking and I want to congratulate you for having the courage and conviction to finally stop it. I quit smoking a long time ago because it's giving me yellow teeth, bad breath, poor hearing and a lot more things.

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May 15, 2012 at 2:24 AM  
Blogger Darby McClintock said...

Being a smoker myself who lived in countries like Singapore and Thailand where a cigarette pack contains all those graphic images of death and all that, I'd understand why pictures alone will not make a smoker quit. It's more on the realization that smoking goes nowhere and it is nothing but a few minutes of not even ecstasy. I'd love to share your blog to my network if you don't mind.
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July 30, 2012 at 2:28 PM  
Blogger Muhammad Zahid Iqbal said...

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

August 23, 2012 at 11:51 AM  
Blogger andieclark said...

You are an inspiration to many smokers. Thankfully, there are e cigarettes now that are quite advantageous compared to the real cigarettes. But your story is a battle anyone would be inspired to hear about.

November 20, 2012 at 12:50 AM  
Blogger Pauline Reed said...

I'm happy that you already quit smoking and although it was a struggle in your part, you were able to succeed. My dentist in North Hollywood says that apart from lung problem, smoking also leads to dental health problems so I want to congratulate you for quitting.

November 22, 2012 at 8:14 PM  
Blogger Vin Polaski said...

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November 26, 2012 at 10:26 PM  
Blogger Theresa Blight said...

The graphic depiction of the afflicted sends a message. The misfortune and folly of one can save many lives through this message. It works much better than hypnotherapy to stop smoking.

November 27, 2012 at 9:51 PM  
Blogger Sheilla Greenburn said...

Dentists Canning Vale owns a lot of pictures showing different cases of tooth diseases. My uncle is aware that he should quit smoking so he will not end up like those people in the pictures. I pity that woman because she learned the lesson the hard way but I am amazed for the reason that she is now participating in campaigns that will help smokers quit the habit.

December 13, 2012 at 3:18 AM  
Blogger Jo Summers said...

If I haven’t seen e liquid products from my cousin who is now an e-cig user, I think I will end up like that woman in the photo. I am glad that I live now in the time when e-cig was invented.

December 18, 2012 at 4:43 AM  
Blogger Sophie Atkins said...

Before undergoing to dental implants new york , My dentist advised me to quit smoking before it’s too late. I’ve been thinking about it over the weekend and good thing I’ve read your blog, well I may have to say that I was persuaded about your writing and decided to quit smoking.

December 26, 2012 at 3:42 PM  
Blogger Albert Wood said...

Same story with mine. I was rushed into the nextcare urgent care clinic because of some complications I had with regards smoking. I'm now on my 3rd month of quitting and still counting.

January 2, 2013 at 3:38 PM  
Blogger Alfie Dale said...

Any one can actually quit if they wanted to. All it takes is discipline, perseverance, and hard work. I know because I underwent quit smoking with hypnosis perth and it worked. I have proven that it's just all in the mind.

January 21, 2013 at 3:15 AM  
Blogger elizabeth yates said...

When I had my dentures in arkansas my dentist advised me to quit smoking too. He noticed that my gums are a bit weak and I should stop asap. It was hard at first, but you'll get used to it.

January 25, 2013 at 12:58 PM  
Blogger Fregard Mosform said...

Yes, sometimes you don't need to see something very graphic to stop doing something. I remember when I was a kid, just the sight of dentures new york dentists often put in their patients kept me away from too much candy.

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January 31, 2013 at 2:04 PM  
Blogger Michelle Helena Cabrera said...

Cigarettes contain thousands of chemicals, including the ones used in pest controls. Yet a lot of people "can't live without" it. I even try to stop my grandfather from smoking, but I guess that won't do if it's a big part of your life already. I'm proud of those who are able to quit smoking. Everyone can do it.

February 14, 2013 at 3:38 AM  
OpenID alexfenston said...

You have an inspiring story. I've been smoking for 15 years now, but I just never had the motivation to stop. I kept smoking until the most horrific thing happened to me; my teeth slowly deteriorated until I finally had to put on dentures. It's quite ironic in our family, because my dad was a dentist. I just wished I stopped when I had a chance to.

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April 16, 2013 at 11:51 AM  
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