What Keeps Me Burning

All right, let’s get down to it, shall we? I’m an official chain-smoker. I admit it. I have been smoking nearly a pack a day since the age of 17, when I first discovered the pleasures of smoking. I was introduced to cigarettes by my boyfriend at the time, who offered me a drag off of his cigarette, and I haven’t looked back since.

Oh, pity the poor smoker in this age of intolerant non-smokers: we are the ones huddled outside of your office buildings, come rain or shine, sucking down that nicotine stick; we are the ones banished to the far corner of the bar, where only a sympathetic bartender pours another and offers an ashtray; we are the ones who sneak away onto the porch at dinner parties, knowing that the only way to put a full stop to a great meal is with our favorite cigarette. As a matter of fact, as I write this, my Marlboro Light is slowly burning away in the ashtray next to me.

There was a time — oh, so long ago — that smokers had respect. Smoking was cool, and a longtime habit of movie stars and other members of the glitterati. If you smoked, you were “bad” (in the good sense of the word), and belonged to that reclusive, chi-chi world where no one would even blink an eye that the average pack of cigarettes costs $4 US. But, things have changed. The world of smokers has been bombarded by the good wishes of Frapuccino-drinking, aerobicizing, health-conscious do-gooders who want to save us from the perils of lung cancer, emphysema, cardiovascular diseases, and a host of other cruel, smoking-related diseases.

Perhaps the August 7th death of the popular ABC news anchor Peter Jennings brought home the realities of lung cancer more than any other event in recent history. Jennings died at the age of 67 from the disease, leaving many of his addicted fans vowing to forsake their habit. The ABC website was inundated with messages from sympathizers, many of whom were aghast that Jennings was struck down at such a premature age. One viewer posted the following message: “At 9:00 I smoked my last cigarette out of the pack I had, and of course I knew that I needed to run out and get more. Shortly after that is when I heard the news about Mr. Jennings. I never went out and got more cigarettes and won’t today either. If Mr. Jennings wanted to impact people and make a difference about smoking and people stopping, he did with me yesterday.”

As with any other disease, when smoking and lung cancer become a cause célèbre, people listen. Long gone are the days of Hollywood icons such as Bogie and Bacall who lit up on the silver screen as if there was no tomorrow (bringing an appealing allure to the classic black-and-white film — movies have never been the same since). The Hollywood of today is far more conscientious about the dangers of the habit, and nowadays only “bad guys” are depicted as smokers on screen. According to a recent study conducted by the American College of Chest Physicians (as reported by John Petrick in Northjersey.com, 28 Aug. 2005): “35.7 percent of all antagonists [in movies] smoked, compared with 20.6 percent of all protagonists.” In addition, smoking was more prevalent in independent and R-rated movies than in mainstream features or PG-rated films.

But when did this turnaround come about? Heroes and heroines had been smoking in movies for years. But somewhere in the 1960s, things began to change. Perhaps the defining moment of cigarette-smoking was depicted in the 1967 film, The Graduate, the story of an innocent, virginal college graduate (Dustin Hoffman) who becomes involved with an older, married woman (Anne Bancroft) and, as a result, picks up smoking. The fact that the formerly smoke-free young man has now been corrupted by the evil woman is clearly depicted by his recently acquired smoking habit: when he was all “good” he didn’t smoke; once he succumbed to evil, well, naturally, he had to pick up smoking as well. Touché.

Yes, predictably, Hollywood has shifted focus from its bygone heroes who would clutter the screen with puffy clouds of smoke to the evil-doers, down on their luck and up to no good, who now dangle nicotine sticks from their mouths. According to Fox News, “the message is clear: Only someone who isn’t from the right side of the tracks would put their health at risk and smoke, said Anderson Jones, film critic for AMC’s Movie Club.” Fox further reports that “Thirty-six percent of smoking characters in box-office hits from the 1990s were villains versus 21 percent who were heroes, and 48 percent were lower-class versus 23 percent who were middle-class and 11 percent who were upper-class.” (2 September 2005) The irony is that, given what cigarettes cost these days, the habit isn’t strictly confined to the upper-middle classes.

Approximately 25 percent of Americans smoke, and when push comes to shove, that’s a large number. Tobacco companies nowadays have to market their cigarettes (if you can even claim that marketing cigarettes exists today) with several warnings on packages vowing the many diseases and ailments that cigarette smoking can bring about. Every pack you buy is equipped with some warning or other. Sales have declined over the years as more and more people opt for healthier lifestyles. Forgive me for sounding nostalgic, but an old activity, once the pleasure of many, is seriously on the decline.

Of course, in the States, there is serious propaganda against smoking which doesn’t exist in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia, where smoking is much more a part of daily life. A few countries in Northern Europe, however, have followed Ireland’s lead (such as Norway) and jumped on the no-smoking bandwagon, much to the chagrin of Europeans who have come to accept the habit as a natural part of life. According to the Washington Post (23 August, 2005), even France — home of the Gualoise and Gitane — is considering a smoking ban, as is the UK. Facing pressure from doctors and unions, the British government is planning to enforce a smoking ban in the workplace by 2008. (Reuters, Bloomberg, 5 September, 2005).

It is still mind-boggling that in some cities, smoking is prohibited even in bars and other public places. There was a time when a drink and a cigarette went hand-in-hand. No longer. Even in France, the last bastion of the serious cigarette smoker, the habit also appears to be in decline (which is why a smoking ban is being contemplated). As CNN reported (1 September 2005), the famous Gauloise cigarettes — recognized as France’s trademark — are no longer manufactured in France, but in Spain: “The legendary brand — staple of French artists and intellectuals, not to mention millions of soldiers in two world wars — has fallen foul of changing tastes, and the Franco-Spanish company Altadis is to concentrate production in Alicante, Spain.” So be it. If Gauloises sales have declined in France, then it’s only a matter of time before Marlboros will become extinct in the States.

There are a lot of arguments against smoking, but talk to a smoker, and you’ll hear the other side. Smoking gives us pleasure, pure and simple. Most of us are eager to quit, but what harm does a cigarette do now and then, really? I know, I know, nicotine addiction is no joking matter. Perhaps most of us consider it one of the few remaining pleasures of life. We don’t wish to harm anyone with second-hand smoke or ourselves for that matter; we just want to light up once in a while.

An interpretation of this commonly shared sentiment of “we don’t mean any harm” caused a huge uproar is Great Britain last year. As the Guardian reported, the UK health secretary, John Reid, angered many Britons when he claimed that “smoking is one of the few pleasures left for the poor on sink estates . . . What enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother of three living in a council sink estate get? The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette.” (9 June 2004)

Though perhaps condescending, Reid may well have a point that the anti-smoking campaign, similar to various other causes, is a preoccupation of the middle classes. I remember, in my long-gone vegetarian days, that I attended a lecture in college about the values of vegetarianism. At the end of the lecture, a student who appeared to hail from somewhere in the Middle East, stood up and said: “Where I come from, we can’t afford the luxury of not eating meat.” I was dumbstruck by his comment, and realized that preaching one’s values onto others is always a mistake. Let people choose for themselves, if they can.

I became a smoker because my parents smoked, my boyfriends all smoked, as did many of my friends. I have always dated smokers, and I probably always will, but strangely enough, most of my friends today are non-smokers who once in a while preach to me about the dangers of my longstanding habit. I spend an awful lot of money on cigarettes, and sometimes, the incessant coughing frightens me to the point where I vow to quit. Peter Jennings’ death also served as a wake-up call, but somehow — call it weakness — I still succumb to that cigarette which always seems to beckon. Most smokers spend a lifetime trying to rationalize that their activity is just a passing phase — a temporary venture that will eventually run its course. But alas, most of us learn too late, and our frequent cries to the rest of the world of “Leave us alone, we’re a dying breed” will probably come true.