I just heard a comment on the radio about an HBO series set in the seventies. They mentioned that, in this series, everyone smoked. That got this former smoker thinking. What drew me to smoking, to begin with? My parents didn’t smoke, but almost everyone else did. In the fifties and sixties, cigarettes were portrayed as a symbol of success, independence, and charisma. Seeing stars like James Dean light up seemed so much more than just smoking. It was an expressive gesture, signaling every human emotion. When actors lit up, the cigarette became an integral part of the scene, signaling the sensitiveness of the moment. In the movie Casablanca, cigarettes were front and center. From Bogart’s drunken scene with Sam at the piano to the movie’s finale with Lisa on the airstrip, cigarettes were used to masterfully telegraph all his feelings.
As a thirteen or fourteen-year-old, I didn’t feel like Bogart, but older teens, images of stars and musicians I loved, had an effect on me. If I just smoked, maybe I could tap into that perceived lifestyle. Sports wasn’t my strong suit, so I looked elsewhere for recognition. I wanted to stand out, to be recognized, to be validated, so I turned to smoking. I knew it would draw attention, good or bad, but I didn’t care. When a peer responded positively, it fed the fire, negative responses did the same. It was the attention, that was all that mattered. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to blame my parents or my family for not recognizing, nurturing, or caring about my adolescent feelings, it’s just what I did. It was a decision I made to stand out in the crowd. Ever since I can remember I’ve always enjoyed the attention. Clowning around, and harmless practical jokes were always, and still are on my radar screen. Thankfully I’ve always been risk-averse enough to have the good sense to stop before I hit the “Watch This” or “Hold My Beer” moment.
Why did I quit? After about fifteen years, I guess I finally began to grow up. For me, smoking went from being this vehicle of self-expression and independence to a smelly, disgusting inconvenient habit. My waking moments were choreographed by cigarettes. I was either smoking or looking for an opportunity to smoke. Attitudes about smoking were rapidly changing, and businesses were declaring themselves smoke-free. The package of coolness and success the cigarette industry used began to slowly unravel exposing the sinister dark side. The Surgeon General’s pleas were finally being heard. It wasn’t about personal pleasure, it was about profit. Profit is built on the backs of unsuspecting smokers. Heck, even the actor who portrayed the Marlboro Man came down with lung cancer. What a wake-up call for smokers that was. Unless you’re a former smoker, you have no idea of the extent of this addiction. After thirty-five-plus years, as much as I detest even the whiff of cigarette smoke, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that once in a while the cravings still come. I told Vickie, if I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and given only a short time to live, after leaving the doctor’s office, I’d stop and buy a pack.