When I was fifteen, I smoked my first cigarette. I coughed until I was green.
As my body screamed, “What are you doing?” the message was clear. Cease and desist immediately.
Instead, I “practiced” until I no longer coughed. Practiced until I no longer dropped things because one hand was now holding something that was actually on fire. Practiced until I could smoke and drive and not hit a tree while I fumbled for the ashtray. Practiced until my body no longer rejected the nicotine, tar and other carcinogenic chemicals I was ingesting but in fact craved them.
Seventeen years later, on December 31, 1980, my (now ex-) wife and I were on a beach in Malaysia. I had not let on that I planned—yet again—to quit at midnight. Instead, I just chain-smoked my way through the day until, seeing me light up again, Annie finally asked, “What are you doing?”
“Smoking,” I said, matter-of-factly. “I am smoking myself sick.” And I did. I smoked until I was nauseous and could barely breathe. Several minutes before midnight, I lit up for the last time. I have now been tobacco-free for more than thirty years.
That night in Malaysia, sadly, was hardly the first time I had quit. I stopped for six weeks once. Another time, I stopped for six months. Always looking for an excuse to start up again, I always found one. Cigarettes, it seemed, ruled my life.
Slowly, however, they began to release their grip, if not physically, then at least mentally and emotionally, as I began to notice that fewer and fewer people smoked.
Annie and I were living in Hong Kong then and frequently dined out with friends, eight or ten of us around the table at a local Chinese restaurant. Over time, I sensed that fewer of us were lighting up after the meal, let alone between courses, as was my habit.
Why can they quit and I can’t? I asked myself, feeling more conspicuous at each gathering. Thus quitting was on the to-do list again, lest I appear weak or stupid, a consideration far more important than my health.
I had also started running, Jim Fixx’s 1977 best-seller The Complete Book of Running on my night table. For a while, of course, I was convinced that I could run and smoke. Not simultaneously, you understand, but hey, what did one thing have to do with the other?
Eventually I owned up to the folly of my ways and chose running over smoking. Whatever the reason I finally quit—peer pressure or just plain good sense—it worked, but it was not easy.
For a while, the smell—thoroughly revolting today—was still appealing. At times, just the sight of an open pack on a coworker’s desk sent
my mind into delicious fantasies of having “just one.” And for years, I would be smoking in a dream, only to wake up in a panic until I understood it had not really happened. Now, I am repulsed by the fact that I ever did it at all.
As a nation, we have come a long way. Today, there is no such thing as smoking in restaurants or pretty much anywhere else, at least in
the U.S. But in another sense, we have traveled a mere millimeter on an exceedingly long course.
Part of the culture in which I grew up, smoking was pushed at us on television and in print. Cigarettes were available everywhere and smoking was allowed everywhere. It was just something that almosteveryone did, including my parents and most of my extended family.
Then, in 1964, Luther L. Terry, M.D., Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service, released the first report of the Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Cigarette smoking, the report concluded, causes cancer.
My father quit immediately. It was if the Grim Reaper himself reached through our television and handed my father his own copy of the report. In fact, within three months of the surgeon general’s report, cigarette consumption in the United States dropped by twenty percent.
I learned this from Devra Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer, published in 2007. Not my usual fare, I do not even remember why I decided to read it. It is five hundred pages of facts and figures, albeit meticulously researched and beautifully written. It is also much more than that. The numbers add up to reveal a story of Biblical proportion about man’s inhumanity to man, of the triumph of greed and corruption over respect, decency, compassion and love.
At the end, therefore, I was left less with the myriad details but with an impression, an understanding etched deep into my psyche that fills me with horror: we knew decades before the Surgeon General’s report that smoking causes cancer. Decades.
What did we do? Lie. Cover up the facts. Distort the evidence. Question the integrity of the researchers. Pay people off. Cut off funding for further research. Silence the people who caused problems for the tobacco industry, their lobbyists and their bought-and-paid-for political hacks.
Why, instead, did we not immediately cease production? Why did we not—as a people, as a species—keen and wail and grieve for the damage done and vow to do no more? What is wrong with us?
When did the human cost fall out of the equation? Maybe it was never included to begin with. I am not an anthropologist or any other kind of “-ologist” who might shed light on just how little our reptilian brains have really evolved from egoism to altruism.
All I know is that cigarettes are still legal. That most of the “food” at the supermarket is synthesized garbage that in sufficient quantities causes heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. That millions of dollars are spent to persuade us that pesticides, fracking and uranium mining are “safe,” along with all the products warning, “Use in well-ventilated area,” “Harmful if swallowed,” and “Avoid contact with skin and eyes.”
That we are hell bent on self-destruction.
At least I am no longer green from smoking. Just blue from despair.
Tags: boomers life changes health stop smoking rev christopher ross
Please log in to post comments on this article. Not a member? Click here to register.