We live in an upside down, topsy-turvy world. Things we thought were right are wrong; things we thought were true are false. Donald Trump is president. Men are women, low unemployment is somehow bad, the socialist penny has a new shine on it.
But one thing is still unequivocally, simply true. Smoking is bad. It’s bad. There is no argument to be made against the universal truth that smoking is awful, disgusting, smelly, self defeating, weak, pathetic, and not as cool as you think it is. Yet I smoke.
One cannot adequately explain to someone who does not smoke what a sublime and sensual pleasure it is. For the occasional or light smoker, it provides a slight lightheaded sensation and a relaxation of the muscles. It is a brief, heightened moment. For the heavy smoker, it is life’s punctuation. We don’t get lightheaded. We get redirected back to our purpose, a moment to gather and plot out the next few moments of kicking tail. Yes, that’s what lighting up feels like.
Before everyone dips the digital quills into the ink of condemnation, think about it. Even after the revelations of the 1980s that smoking kills, our culture still swims in this. Popular culture tells us so. Let’s just look back at the West Wing.
Everyone gushed when Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett had finally had enough, and had to light up. It was authentic. Barack Obama smoked for years. Did he ever light one up in the Oval Office, Willie Nelson-like? Did he feel that intoxication fill his lungs? I like to think so.
Even as the power of the Oval Office intoxicates, so does tobacco. Is there a picture of Franklin Roosevelt without a cigarette? And did that give him the common touch? Often and significantly, the cigarette is the equalizer, the plain and plaintive pleasure shared by planters and patriarchs. Sometimes the bums bum the banker a smoke. Sometimes they just stand for a moment and smoke together. Talking.
I think of the train and bus stations of my youth, planes being a rare and distant luxury. And there is smoking. When I was a very young adult it was inside, then outside. And all the interesting people, conversations, the open and mad, wild Americans crossing land and spending the slower moments smoking and telling of their adventures. And there was smoking. And there was the haze of it hanging in the close, choking air.
If we have to say goodbye to smoking, as perhaps I must, is it best to pretend it was meaningless? What a fool’s breakfast it is to awake and pretend that we don’t do it because we like it and it helps us. The “we like it” part is not particularly controversial, the “it helps us” part is. But it does help me. I’m smoking as I write this. I just drew smoke from the rolled cigarette in my left hand as I thought about what I should write next.
I’m all for risk-reduced products. I’m all for tobacco in new forms that cause less harm. When I recently interviewed the CEO of Philip Morris, he for the first time suggested that someday tobacco might come back as a slightly unhealthy product like booze, fast food, or college. They have groundbreaking reduced-risk products. I’m here for all of that. But in the meantime, I smoke.
Smoking means a lot to me. Maybe that is wrong, or crazy, or weak, but it is what it is and I accept it. We live in a society that teaches us to be ashamed of our bad choices, and maybe we should be. Maybe we drink too much, smoke too much, and express ideas that are harmful too much. Maybe we should stop eating meat to save the planet. Maybe every moment of fun we squeeze from this too short life is selfish and wrong. But who cares? Live a little before you die.
I accept the judgment of the puritans who think the delicious puff I just took off my cigarette is the road to perdition. It probably is. But in my chilly Brooklyn backyard, coat on, laptop open, it feeds me. And nobody has to like it, except me.
Make no mistake, I’m scared. Every morning cough, every slight chest pain, every moment out of breath makes me wonder if I’ve crossed that final line. But we all cross it someday. I still smoke because I still think right now matters more than a future that may or may not arrive. Make of that what you will.
I don’t expect to ever give up tobacco. If I can use it in less harmful forms, okay. But what public policy makers have to understand is that a lot of people like me won’t just stop. We don’t want to and we don’t think we should have to. We will pay your taxes, exile ourselves to outdoor smoking areas, and accept mockery. What we won’t do is stop using tobacco.
Keep us in mind in setting public policy. Know we exist. No matter how many of us die, we aren’t going anywhere. So why not focus policy on giving us safer alternatives that help us live longer instead of making moral proclamations? I’d really appreciate it.