Waiting to Inhale

Waiting to Inhale


By the time I got to the counter, my resolve was set.

"Can I help you?"

"Yes, I've decided to start smoking."

No reaction.

"Could you recommend a good beginner's brand?"

I was just being a smartass, trying to make this big statement in the store. It was one of those places that just sell cigarettes. I expected to be shown the door, or, if they thought I was serious, talked out of it.

"Well, I suppose you'd want to start with a light."

I knew nothing of cigarettes. I thought he meant a match.

I said, "Very funny. I mean what brand should I start with. Does Fisher-Price make cigarettes?"

Though there were people waiting behind me, he took the time to outline a few basics. I had no idea there were so many choices. Filters, no filters, long ones, short ones, low tar, ultra lights, brown or white, soft packs or hard. Those in line behind me were annoyingly patient. I wanted them to understand I was being ironic.

So I asked about promotional programs. "Think I could I earn enough "Camel Bucks" to get a free leather jacket before I got cancer?"

He wasn't sure.

I pushed on. "So, what's this whole "menthol" thing? It makes them taste like candy so kids like it, right? Should I start off with menthol?"

He said he thought that might be a good idea.

Finally, a woman in line behind me couldn't keep quiet any longer.

"My God, don't start him off with menthol."

The situation was slipping out of my control. Everyone in the store got into a big discussion about menthol, on my behalf. I had infiltrated their store in guerilla politics mode, and they responded with genuine helpfulness. It was terrible.


That was a few years ago, and I've lightened up a little. Live and let live. "BAN ABSOLUTES," my bumper sticker says. But I'm still shocked that nobody in that store saw what I was trying to do. Had I been serious, I would have been a real statistical anomaly. Nobody takes up smoking as an adult. 90 percent of smokers get their start before the age of 19, and it tapers off fast from there. If I took it up now I'd probably be kidnapped for study by some evil corporation with a tobacco leaf in its logo.

So if adults are too smart to start, why don't smart adults quit? Is it habit? Addiction? Or something more? I decided to find out what it's like to be a smoker. After all, it's what separates us from the animals. To do this I'd have to smoke a cigarette. But before I did I wanted to do some research and get practical advice from real smokers.

There's an interesting book by Richard Klein called Cigarettes are Sublime, in which the author extols the beauty of smoking as part of his personal path to quitting. He argues that part of the attraction of smoking is its badness, and by stressing the merits of cigarettes he was able to bid them a fond farewell. He makes them sound pretty good.

Currently 23.5% of adult Americans smoke. Men more than women, poor more than wealthy, young more than old. I read a lot of statistics about smoking, but honest statistics are hard to come by. After all, 43% of all statistics are made up on the spot. Wait; let's make that 52%. Everybody spins numbers and language to support their position, whether they're a big tobacco company or a public health organization. There is big money at stake, huge money. For a while, the main debate was about health effects, but now even tobacco companies admit that smoking is bad for you. These days the big fight takes place at the intersection of smokers and nonsmokers rights. And it's not just about fresh air in the restaurant; it's the notion that we all pay for smoking, whether we puff or not. We pay with increased medical costs, accidental fires, litter, the premature death of Humphrey Bogart, and so on. These are important and controversial issues that I fully intend to ignore in this article.

What do smokers have in common, I wondered. Does something bind them, or are they a random sampling of individuals, like people who like anchovies?

At the "Cigarettes Cheaper" store I picked up something called "The Smoker's Creed." So, I thought, they have a creed. Probably a secret handshake too. The creed is printed alongside an illustration of a proud, rugged Native American. The creed starts, "I smoke because I like to smoke. I smoke because I want to smoke. Smoking pleases me. My life is better because I smoke." Sounds more like a chant of denial than a creed, but whatever.

I swung by a couple more tobacco-only stores to ask the salespeople whether they could take one look at a customer and guess the brand they would buy. They said no. The stores weren't much to look at. I guess once somebody's decided to smoke you don't need to do much in the way of salesmanship. Smoking may be played up as glamorous in magazine ads, in movies, and at certain parties, but at the point of sale the whole thing is as stark and depressing as picking up a prescription for a rash.

On the way downtown to interview random smokers, I bought a pack. I tried rolling it up in the sleeve of my Hawaiian shirt, but it wouldn't stay. I put it in my shirt pocket instead. I figured having them visible might help gain the trust of my subjects.

A man I found sitting on a bench said that back when he had a job, he would take a lot of smoking breaks while his non-smoking co-workers sat at their desks all day. I asked whether he thought the stress reducing effect of taking breaks might offset the health risks of smoking. "I think I got laid off BECAUSE of the breaks," he said. "Now I'm taking breaks from doing nothing."

I moseyed down to the south end of Pacific, where I approached a couple young punkers sitting on the curb, muttering obscenities and playfully knifing each other. They hadn't heard of the Smoker's Creed, and they didn't want to recite it with me, even after I offered them smokes. "Would you care for a fucking cigarette?" I asked in their native tongue. As it turned out, they didn't want to be seen smoking ultra-lights. But they did show me the cool way to get the pack open, which culminated with tossing the plastic wrapper in the street.

I asked a lot of people what it was like being a smoker. About half said they didn't consider themselves "smokers," which was odd considering they were smoking when I asked them. They were casual, part-time smokers, who only lit up occasionally, perhaps just when they drank or hung out with certain friends. I was stunned at how many people were in this category--I always assumed that anyone with a cigarette was a hopeless addict.

These part-timers tended to talk a lot about the buzz they got from smoking. The full-time smokers, presumably way past the buzz stage, spoke of how cigarettes relaxed them. This may be largely physiological--once you're hooked, it's certainly much more relaxing to smoke than not to--but often they claimed that the world was stressful, and smoking was their only defense.

What tells smokers when it's time to fire up another one? Many said that a major trigger was someone else doing it. I've seen this many times, at sports events, bars, and even international flights, where the smokers would all light up at once as though some horn sounded that only they could hear. But it was really just a chain reaction, like a string of silent firecrackers.

It was the full-timers who tended to mention the high price of cigarettes, which isn't surprising. The pack I bought cost $4.20. Two packs a day would add up to over three thousand dollars a year, the cost of a good vacation. Some people roll their own, which is cheaper. You can buy a variety of tobaccos, papers, and even filters to create your own little personal cigarette factory. That way, if you develop heart disease you could sue yourself later for not revealing that it was unhealthy.

One thing I'd have to deal with if I started smoking was figuring out where I could do it. The full-timers have it worst, because they need to smoke at regular intervals whether it's convenient or not. In some airports you can find designated smoking areas which are really glass cubes full of people trying to get enough nicotine into their systems to last a whole flight. They look like an exhibit at the Bad Habits Museum.

Smokers reported developing little strategies to downplay their habit. They avoid carpooling so that they can smoke on the way. They pick bathroom stalls located beneath exhaust vents and blow upwards. They chew gum to help with the breath. They find little alleys and balconies and rooftops where they're sure a non-smoker won't accidentally walk by and catch cancer. They might say they're going outside for "fresh air." To be a smoker, I may have to learn how to say that with a straight face.

You know how, every holiday season, we hear somebody say "Christmas isn't about presents and shopping and food, it's about togetherness?" Well, for the part-timers, it's kind of like that with smoking. It isn't about the mechanics of buying and lighting and sucking and blowing and getting a little buzz. It's about getting together with other smokers. It's about sharing a break at work, or forming a little clique outside the smoke-free bar. As a non-smoker, I know what it's like to be excluded from these little social events. I might be the one left alone in the bar trying to hold their seats. I pour salt in their drinks while they're gone. They can't taste it.

Most smokers were stumped when asked to give pointers to a beginner. Their circumstances wouldn't apply to me. It's not like they could say, "Fall in with a rough crowd at summer camp" or "Blackmail your sister into showing you how."

The notion of finding some advice on the internet seemed like a long shot, since, oh, 82% of all smoking-related websites are about quitting and 15% are by smokers on self-righteous rampages about being modern pariahs. Still, that leaves 4% for other topics.

Unfortunately, most of that 4% is used by smoking fetish porn sites. Naked people smoking before and during sex instead of after. Eventually I found one site that specifically intended to teach people how to smoke. Well, women anyway.

You'll find it at www.geocities.com/NapaValley/5097/how.html and it's called "How to Start Smoking: A Guide for Women."

It's written by someone called "Dr. Humo." He's very encouraging. "First of all, let me congratulate you on making this decision [to smoke]. In the face of immense political pressure based upon questionable motives, you have decided to be yourself and express your femininity in a very bold manner. Let me reassure you: You WILL find pleasure in your decision. And you will make the man that loves you (or who will fall in love with you) VERY happy.

Amidst some pretty straightforward advice about how to pick brands and whatnot, you can find a lot of lines that would be funny if they weren't so horrifying.

Humo says, "You might be tempted to buy an expensive lighter. Please resist the temptation for the time being. I am quite certain that you will be receiving one as a gift from a grateful husband or boyfriend on your next birthday, anniversary, or even no occasion other than your starting smoking."

Sometimes he lays it on thick. "Whenever your husband or boyfriend sees you smoke, he will be hearing you say how much you love him; how much you want to please him physically; and how much you enjoy pure pleasure."

Smoking may look pretty sexy to some people, but the fact is being a smoker makes you undateable for much of the population. Many people would sooner kiss a dog food taster. This doesn't seem to bother a lot of smokers, maybe because they meet others of their kind so easily. Say you go outside for a cigarette, and there's a stranger there doing the same thing. You have something in common, so it's socially permissible to address them. For instance, "Got a light?" That wouldn't happen to non-smokers. If you're a non-smoker and you go outside to stand around for five minutes, you would look creepy. Maybe this is why spies always seem to be smokers--it gives them a plausible excuse to stand around and watch the street. It's nice to make new friends so easily. I imagine the lung wards are the friendliest sections of the hospital--everybody knows each other.

Finally I decided it was time to try it. Smokers advised me that it's more about cool than about nicotine, and some described a period of practicing in private before being seen in public. I looked at myself in the mirror with an unlit cigarette. My God, what a badass mofo I was! Well, more like 23 percent badass and 77 percent wino.

I got up to 64 percent badass when I worked on squinting while puffing and pretended to extinguish it in my palm. Then I put one over my ear, like I was saving it for later. Then I tried juggling three of them, which was challenging and fun but cost me 20 badass points.

I was stalling.

My girlfriend would be home in a few hours, and I wanted my breath back to normal by then. She wasn't very enthusiastic about my experiment.

I went out to the backyard and fired up. I was told I'd have to drag on it pretty hard to get it lit. True. I tried a few shallow puffs, then one pretty deep one. It felt hot. Once I figured out how much I could inhale without coughing, I tried to sit back, relax, and enjoy the rich, mellow experience of a good smoke.

Dr. Humo was encouraging about this stage. "Remember, even if you are, for right now, the clumsiest smoker in the world, you are already sexier than ninety percent of the non-smokers!"

It was hard to understand how anyone could describe smoking a cigarette as rich or mellow, but hey, I was new at it. I didn't detect anything I'd call flavor. Once I was three or four drags into it, I felt done, but I had a long ways to go. I said I'd smoke a cigarette, so I kept at it. It seemed to take forever. Later I timed some smokers from a discreet distance and it took them an average of 8 minutes. At that speed it would take two hours and twenty minutes to smoke just one pack. Where do they find the time?

I figured I'd get a satisfying buzz for my trouble, but no such luck. What I felt, about ten minutes later, was a kind of wooziness through my whole body, like mild seasickness. On the plus side, I could tell that my dog thought I looked really cool.

I didn't expect to try one cigarette and fall in love with smoking. Everyone told me it it's an acquired taste. I'll take their word for it.

So I decided to quit smoking. It wasn't so hard for me, but I've got great willpower. It's much harder for most. The old joke is that smoking doesn't kill people, people trying to quit kill people. I have a better understanding now about the lure of starting and the triumph of quitting, but there's still much I don't understand. My friend Heidi quit by promising herself that she could start again at age 60. She's really looking forward to it.