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Robin Abcarian

Smoking Pleasures: Lighting Up, Throwing Them Away

June 25, 1997|Robin Abcarian

To some people, smoking is addictive. To others, they can take it or leave it.

--Bob Dole, in widely vilified remarks during last year's presidential campaign.

*

On the day that the tobacco industry agreed to a financial settlement larger than a hundred Michael Ovitzes might see in several lifetimes, I bought a pack of cigarettes, my first in 15 years.

Lights, of course.

To be honest, I had not realized that cigarette manufacturers had just entered their historic--if tentative--accord with the government. In fact, I did not become aware of it until the following morning when I opened my newspaper and a headline screamed the news in jarringly large type: "$368-Billion Tobacco Accord."

By then, my deed was done.

On Friday night, after my daughter was fast asleep, after her father--who I had hectored at her birth until he quit his dastardly nicotine habit--was safely tucked into bed, I stole away to the local convenience store.

Feeling strangely self-conscious, I stood in line behind several people, wishing for invisibility. All of them, it turned out, were buying cigarettes. No one seemed even vaguely ashamed.

Not having bought a pack in recent memory--and apparently having been unconsciously infected with the notion that burdensome sin taxes ought to be levied on morally dubious retail transactions--I thought two bucks for a pack of smokes was a steal.

I drove home, checked my sleeping family, and walked out the front door. We live on a street that has no roadway in front, only a sidewalk, and it is very peaceful at night.

I sat on our porch, stared at the moon and the palms, and smoked a single, delicious cigarette.

*

Bob Dole was right. Tobacco is not addictive for everyone who tries it. It can't be, or virtually everyone would be huddling in office building doorways during work breaks, sucking on breath mints and generally feeling like second-class citizens.

Unfortunately, susceptibility to cigarette addiction cannot be gauged without smoking. I will never be addicted to cigarettes because it would have happened long ago--in college, where I first tried smoking, or graduate school, where I fell in with a crowd that confused good journalism with bad habits. I never enjoyed smoking enough to become addicted. The taste is not appealing, nor is the stinky aura. But the nicotine rush is instant and pleasurable--and for many people, including my husband, insidiously addictive.

As for my covert run to the convenience store, perhaps all the recent talk about the evils of tobacco had permeated my unconscious, like an absurdly ironic post-hypnotic suggestion. Yes, I supported the Merchants of Death with my purchase, but I remain firmly in the anti-tobacco camp.

Joe Camel must die. I heartily applaud the government's attempts to make it impossible for children and teenagers to smoke. I endorse the efforts of the attorneys general who have sued the tobacco companies to be reimbursed for the public money spent on treating tobacco-related diseases. I encourage the FDA to outlaw nicotine in cigarettes. And I am pleased that cigarette makers have agreed to provide free cessation clinics to anyone who wishes to attend one.

Tobacco kills. It kills more than 400,000 Americans a year--and many die in gruesome and protracted ways. Its victims die of lung cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke. For all we know, they die from crashing into telephone poles while reaching for cigarettes as they drive too. There is no shortage of numerical data to bolster arguments that smoking is not only nasty but socially costly.

As the protagonist of Christopher Buckley's 1994 comic novel, "Thank You for Smoking" points out, "Smoking is the nation's leading cause of statistics." (Smoking, oddly, also saves the lobbyist's life. An attempt to kill him by covering his body with a lethal number of nicotine patches backfires because, as a "normal, healthy smoker," his tolerance to the drug is substantial. Ah, fiction.)

On Saturday night, I smoked again.

*

It took but a moment for the glow of the historic accord to dim, but a moment for the anti-smoking forces to call into question the sincerity of an industry known for its less-than-candid dealings with the public. ("To my knowledge, it's not been proven that cigarette smoking causes cancer," said William I. Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Philip Morris U.S.A. in 1993.)

The tobacco companies, it seems, have little to lose here. They would get to pass the cost of the settlement on to their customers (pack prices may rise to $3 or more) and the payouts will be tax deductible. They would weasel out of fines for failing to lower the teen smoking rate as long as they can show they made a good-faith effort to do so. They would no longer face the possibility of new class-action lawsuits, nor would they be liable for punitive damages in suits brought by individuals. And, of course, nothing in this deal prevents the cultivation of lucrative, untapped foreign markets.

Let me tell you something else: I threw out the rest of my smokes Tuesday morning. And it felt good . . . like refusing a cigarette should.

* Robin Abcarian co-hosts a morning talk show on radio station KTZN-AM (710). Her column appears on Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is rabcarian@aol.com.

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