Commentary

Snow: Give up your cigarettes

November 23, 2013 

Driving along Glenwood Avenue, I noticed an arm extending from the window of the car ahead of me.

As I drew closer, at the stoplight, I perceived that it was the arm of a woman with a cigarette in her hand.

It was almost artistic, the way her fingers caressed the cigarette, occasionally flipping a fingernail to dislodge the ash.

The little vignette pleasantly reminded me that I don’t see as many smokers as I once did. It also reminded me of a time when I, too, was a slave to the ugly and dangerous health hazard.

Soon after I encountered the smoker at the stoplight, I read in The Week magazine that the tobacco industry last month quietly observed the 100th anniversary of the birth of the cigarette.

Camels, the AK47s of cigarettes, became the most powerful and popular weapon in the tobacco industry’s deadly arsenal. They were far too strong for me.

I was a Marlboro man, at one time smoking up to two packs a day. I excused my addiction by deceiving myself into thinking, “Well, so much of them burn away in the ash try while I’m writing.” I felt no guilt whatsoever about damaging other reporters’ lungs with secondhand smoke.

It’s ironic that I spent almost three years in the Air Force during World War II without smoking, although we were issued a free carton of cigarettes weekly.

I passed mine off to my buddies until we reached Japan a few weeks after the surrender. On the streets of Tokyo, one could hold up a pack of cigarettes and be instantly mobbed by nicotine-starved Japanese willing to hand over fistfuls of yen in exchange for the cigarettes.

Once at Tokyo’s prestigious Imperial Hotel, I traded a pack of Kents for a six-course meal.

It wasn’t until after college and on my first newspaper job in Burlington that I caved in to peer pressure and became addicted.

The government’s war against cigarette addiction has paid off. Our restaurants, school grounds, state buildings and many other businesses are smoke-free.

Nevertheless, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2011 survey, 43.8 million or 19 percent of Americans 18 and older smoke.

While watching the woman at the stoplight, I remembered something attributed to the late Leonard Michaels, a New York writer. He aptly described the cigarette’s power over a smoker:

“It’s a shame cigarettes kill you,” he wrote, “because they are otherwise inspirational and people smoke them beautifully.

“White wine goes with lobster. What goes with bad news so well as a cigarette? Imagine a common deprivation – say a long spell of no sex – without a cigarette.

“Life isn’t good enough, generally, for no cigarette. It doesn’t make you godlike, only a little priest of fire and smoke. All those sensations yours, like mystical money. Such a shame they kill. With no regard for who it is.”

While waiting for the light to change, I had the urge to jump out of my car, dash up and gently remove the cigarette from the smoker’s hand. I even rehearsed my remarks.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I would say. “I don’t mean to meddle. I’m not here to save your soul or ask for a handout. I’m here to try to perhaps save your life.”

That would be a lie. Of course, I meant to meddle, much in the same way strangers come up to you and inquire if you’ve been “saved.” They mean well.

But it’s still meddling.

I longed to tell the woman at the stoplight what life was like for me, my family and friends after I finally became man enough to stop smoking more than 30 years ago.

I knew she might tell me to mind my own business. But then, on the other hand she might not. She might think about quitting.

The late Kidd Brewer, colorful Raleigh entrepreneur, ran for lieutenant governor of North Carolina in 1956.

He sought votes by strewing the state with billboards bearing his campaign slogan, “You’ll be glad you did.”

If you’re a smoker, I promise that if you’ll stub out your very last Marlboro in your ash tray, you’ll be glad you did. What a great Christmas gift you can give yourself!

Snow: 919-836-5636 or asnow@newsobserver.com

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