Monday, September 17, 2007

SMOKE-FREE WORLD – After this blog, I could lose some friends temporarily or maybe keep a few around even longer

I think the world should be tobacco free. For the smoker who reads even this far, I’m impressed. Before you get all bent out of shape, rolling your eyes, furrowing your brow, shaking your head and saying the following: “Man, here we go again. Militant ex-smokers who can’t leave us the f’ alone. It’s my right to smoke. I’m only harming myself. I’ll quit if and when I’m ready. I know it’s bad for me but it’s my choice. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. My uncle smoked for 60 years and never got cancer.” Save it. I used to say the same things, and I felt pretty stupid because it was so easy to rationalize and lie to myself. I finally did quit. I feel stronger about this subject than nearly any other, and if you have the courage to read this without a bunch of arguments cocked and ready, maybe you’ll find an ounce of motivation to stop smoking.

Warning: This is a really long blog and it's not my usual "hope I make you laugh" fare. I have a lot to say on this subject. I’m not pulling punches on this one and realize you’re tired of militant ex-smokers telling you what to do, so I may just piss you off, but I’m just as tired of hearing smokers commiserate on how alienated they are, and how tough it is to continue to enjoy their annoying, obnoxious, harmful, disgusting addiction anywhere within two miles of another human being.

Ingesting arsenic is only harming yourself. Smoking is shared by everyone and everything around you. And if you do end up with cancer, you haven’t only harmed yourself and you know it. You’ve hurt everyone around you who cares even just a little about you, and hurt those who do love you tremendously. And you do it to yourself every day, and you can prevent it. That’s what an honest smoker knows. That’s what I realized, and even when I realized it, it took me six more years to follow through.

How did I quit? I guilted the hell out of myself until I finally had the courage to walk away from it. I imagined a doctor telling me that I had lung cancer and six months to live. When thinking about the obvious question coming from my son, “Dad? Why did you do this to yourself?” Answering “because it’s my right” just didn’t cut it. And I became angry. I was angry with myself for not seeing the obvious: I don’t need cigarettes. The tobacco companies aren’t my friends. I’m setting a horrible example for my kids. Every excuse that came out of my mouth was hypocrisy.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you, Mr. Chesterfield.

There is no real positive benefit to smoking, nor is there a valid argument to allow people to smoke around others who don’t. And smoking is a physical act that involves an area or space, and not just the smoker and his or her device. So the privilege to smoke a cigarette may be a personal freedom, but the physical act of smoking is not. Therefore, it is not a personal “freedom” or personal “right” that requires protection. Smoke-free areas have nothing to do with allowing people to smoke or not smoke; it has everything to do with regulating the air and space around those people, which doesn’t belong to any one person or group.

Yes, mine is a free country. But that doesn’t mean smokers can claim satisfying their addiction in places non-smokers frequent as a personal right or freedom; the simple counter argument is breathing smoke-free air in those same places (anywhere there is shared airspace on this lovely planet) is the non-smoker's right. They cancel each other out.

And even enclosed areas or establishments that are deemed “smoking” rarely contain only smokers. There are non-smoking employees or visitors. And even if the employees or visitors or regulars are smokers, they’re still breathing in secondhand smoke unnecessarily.

I am an ex-smoker, which means I am a recovered nicotine addict and have been both a smoker and non-smoker. As a smoker, I rationalized my addiction like everyone else:

• It’s a stress-reliever
• It curbs my appetite
• I enjoy it
• There’s nothing better after a good meal or after sex
• I have an affinity to tobacco farmers in North Carolina and Virginia – they have the right to produce a legal crop
• It’s my personal right
• This is a free country

It’s a stress-reliever
It does work as a stress-reliever, but honestly that’s usually the relief you feel from satisfying your nic fit, not reducing your blood pressure or heart rate (actually does the opposite). I’d like to carry a spray bottle and mist the smokers I have to pass through when entering a building or a bar, which would definitely relieve some of my stress, but it’s not my right. There are plenty of ways to relieve stress which doesn’t involve nicotine, smoking or unhealthy choices. If it was the only way to relieve stress, you might have an argument.

In school, I learned that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. It’s actually the furthest a smoker will go before they are allowed to light up. If it’s a car, it’s to the crack in the window; if it’s a house, it’s to the first step of the porch, deck or garage; if it’s a smoke-free building, that would be as your face breaks the plane of the entrance/exit, balcony, or bathroom (after hours). If you can’t smoke in the building, could you at least walk a few more feet? Good lord, how bad is it that you have to light up before you even get out the GD door? When I see smokers leaving a building to fire up a stogie, I picture a two year-old being dragged by his mother through the aisles of a toy store, feet sliding, hand limp, tears pouring down his face, not getting the toy he wants. Did you ever consider at least it’s exercise, and to walk a few more feet or meters?

It curbs my appetite
There may be some truth to this. But I don’t believe smokers are any less obese than non-smokers. And we all know the only way to a healthy body is proper diet and exercise. And though I know there are a few smokers that also jog, most only get their exercise from walking in and out of their office nine times a day to grab a smoke. They’re not the diehards at Gold’s Gym.

I enjoy it
I really did love my cigarettes. I loved the taste, and the curl it would make before sliding down into my chest. I loved the instant gratification. I loved the rituals, the smell of a fresh pack, slapping down a box on the heel of my hand to pack the tobacco in so the cigarettes would last even longer. Addictions truly can be fun. Do I miss it now? Honestly, yes. But I found better rituals that I enjoy just as much, and they aren’t killing me.

There’s nothing better after a good meal or sex
Actually, dessert is much better after a good meal, and you can taste even more once your taste buds reawaken and your olfactory sense is back in working order. As for sex, if you’re doing it right, there’s nothing than can top it; not even a cigarette. If you have the energy to light one up after sex, you have energy to go again - much better.

I have an affinity to tobacco farmers in North Carolina and Virginia – they have the right to produce a legal crop
In all business there is risk. If your company produces tobacco or tobacco-based products, you know there’s a risk your industry may suffer if more people quit or die (fewer customers), or you actually decide to stop producing harmful products. As long as there’s a legal business and a market, enjoy your jobs. But it might be a good idea to find some other uses for tobacco besides producing cigarettes. Why do you think RJ Reynolds bought Nabisco? It wasn’t just for the Nilla® Wafers. It’s to have completely separate products to fall back upon – just make sure there are no trans fats in your cookies.

Something I hear a lot in my line of work (software) is: “It’s not like we’re curing cancer.” I say it myself a great deal. What we mean is, it’s just a job and it’s not always fulfilling or seemingly that important. What we do isn’t necessarily noble. If you work for big tobacco, you could say the same thing, but it would be in poor taste. In fact, your products actually promote cancer. Hooray! Disease!

It’s my personal right
Really? Why? I agree that it isn’t up to the government to tell you what you can and cannot do to yourself. If you are an adult, our government shouldn’t have to tell you that your behavior is risky or try to mandate it. Don’t want to wear a condom, or a motorcycle helmet, or protect your lungs, it’s your right to ignore common sense. But when your behavior affects others, it’s no longer your personal freedom. There are others involved when it comes to smoking. You have the right to smoke, just not where others can be affected. So build a self-enclosed chamber (not an automobile), where you can smoke to your heart’s content (which, if your heart could speak, would be never). Once you’re around others, you can’t do it.

Forget about the laws of our government. Let’s try the laws of physics: a gas will fill the volume of its container. The air we all breathe is within our atmosphere. Yes, it’s one huge ass container, but every time you light up, even outdoors, and there are others around, they breathe it in, too. And they smell it. And it’s nasty. And even though the government shouldn’t have to regulate common sense, try to remember that when you light up, and you are hurting yourself, and slowly changing the cells in your body that will at the least result in some form of disease and quite possibly form into a tumor and kill you, there are others that will be affected by your illness or death. Primarily your loved ones, who never wanted you to die. And your fellow citizens who are footing the health care bills and research to help save your sorry ass, or at least provide you hospice in your final hours.

Oh, and how many breaks a day do you take at work? I know you believe it’s your right to smoke, but is it your right to cut out an hour a day of productivity? If you add an hour to your schedule every day, and don’t socialize when you come back into the office after each break, and avoid surfing the net as much as everyone around you, then of course I’m not speaking to you. And how is it possible anyway that any employer today allows nicotine fix breaks? If you need your nicotine, wear a patch or chew the gum. You aren't entitled to an outdoor break every hour on the hour any more than I am.

It’s a free country
Why is it that every time someone does something that pisses someone else off, they say “It’s a free country.”? I’m not vain enough to think that soldiers died for my right to die; maybe to state an opinion without fear of government intervention or retribution.

Here’s what happened when I did quit
How many colds do you get a year? How many do you smoke through? How long do they last? Once you quit, the cilia that was burned off of your throat and in your nose, and was kept off with every cigarette, grows back almost immediately. And it once again protects you from germs and irritants. Since I quit, I now get fewer colds, and when I do catch one, it’s gone in a few days.
I didn’t realize my taste buds would regenerate and I would experience flavor, smells and taste again.

When I get into an elevator with someone who just had a cigarette, it’s overwhelming. I don’t say this to be dramatic, but it is true. I had no idea when I got onto an elevator after a cigarette what others were experiencing. I’m still embarrassed. Do you know how strong and permeating the smell of burning tobacco is? When I’m driving, even with my windows closed, I know if someone in the car in front of me is smoking (not because of the cigarette butt that is thoughtlessly flicked out the window). The tobacco actually wafts back to the cars behind you. Ask other non-smokers and they’ll confirm this.

And what about flicking your cigs? Let’s talk about the careless littering. Biodegradable or not, cigarette butts (especially lit ones -- see Cigarette Fire Deaths or States Target Cigarette Fire Risks or Cigarettes Causing Fires) should not be tossed out the window onto the streets and into the fields, or mashed on the road or sidewalk. It’s burning! It’s dangerous! And it’s your garbage and you are responsible for it. You car has an ashtray, why don’t you use it? Because it’s disgusting and smells when it’s full? Hmm…

I’m no longer contributing to an industry that should have been eradicated centuries ago. And I’m saving money. Why do you think cigarettes are so expensive? Because they can be. You will pay anything, and sacrifice other things, to get them. You may not lose your job and sell your house like a cocaine addict, but you’ll drive around for an hour, walk through snow, stand in the rain, and bum them from strangers. What else have you ever asked for from a stranger? “Hey buddy, can I have a piece of your sandwich? I’m really hungry and I don’t have any food on me. I'll get you next time.”

I’m no longer hurting others around me, other than the feelings of some smokers right now. Even when I did smoke, I wouldn’t smoke in the house with my children. And I wouldn’t smoke in the car with them in there either. If you do, you’re either in complete denial about the effects of secondhand smoke or a complete asshole. Probably both. There is nothing to excuse you for putting your children (or anyone else for that matter) through that. Their right to breathe freely trumps any freedoms to which you think you are entitled.

I’m no longer hurting myself, nor increasing the chances those that love me may not have me around as long as they’d like. I knew with every puff that I was hurting myself and needlessly harming my body. It was a constant teeter-totter of guilt and relief. I rationalized it away. I said stupid things like, “Why quit smoking? I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” You know what? If I get hit by a bus tomorrow it’s because I’m an idiot – it’s still my fault for not stopping, looking and listening before I crossed the street.

“There are people who live to their 80s without catching lung cancer.” Well, you don’t catch cancer from someone else. It isn’t an infection or a virus. It is in simple terms, abnormal cells gone out of control. And they destroy normal cells. Ingesting carcinogens on an hourly basis, like the nicotine and 200 other substances in cigarette smoke, bring about unwanted cell transformations (the DNA in your cells is literally altered), creating those abnormal, cancerous cells. Do you really want to risk that? What would you do if you found out it has already started and you still had a chance to stop it?

And for those octogenarians who somehow do survive decades of smoking, what is their quality of life? They hack, they’re strapped to oxygen tanks, they sound miserable (with or without the sporty electronic larynx) and look even worse: their skin, nails and teeth (if they still have them) are disgusting. And though they technically may not have lung cancer, they usually have an assortment of other diseases like emphysema, heart disease, gum disease or another form of cancer besides lung like pancreatic, liver, bladder, mouth, throat, or tongue, or even melanoma. So forget about wagering your chances at health lotto on your Great Aunt Hackina.

I’m not a liar anymore. I don’t rationalize or tell myself lies to make me feel better about continuing my addiction. When I quit I was very proud of myself; but as time went on, I became incredibly angry with myself for taking so long to do it. I only wish I had quit sooner. I quit in 1996 but I had smoked for 20 years. I’m still at risk for all the crap I sucked into my body. I still hope I quit in time. And that’s the point of this blog. Not to argue about your personal freedoms. It’s to offer my perspective, as a former smoker, that you’ve said many of these things to yourself already and somehow haven’t quit, or haven’t given it a serious enough try. You’re hurting yourself and others around you, especially the ones who care about you. If you quit smoking, you won’t be offended by anything in this rant. If you continue, then it’s still worth the risk of you being mad at me, or offended, or dismissing me as a self-righteous a*hole. I can live with that.

I thought of someone besides myself. At first, I quit for me when I was ready and because it was the right time. But part of my reasoning was because I became responsible for others, and how selfish it was of me to ignore that. You don’t have to be a parent to be responsible for others, or to realize that your health, well-being and life has a great effect on others, no matter your age, relation or situation.

So non-smokers will nod their heads, ex-smokers with a little more emphasis and smokers will agree and say, yeah, I should quit, or take offense, or most likely dismiss this rant as drivel from a militant ex-smoker. You’ve heard it all before. Can’t we just leave you alone? Well if you stop smoking around us, we’ll leave you alone. I just hope this motivates you somehow, even subconsciously, to smoke less, or at least think of others when you do light up or toss a lit butt out the car window.

And for my smoking friends and family, I have a right to express my opinions in my blog and don’t write all these things just to prove a point or my side of the argument. It’s because quitting smoking (and not starting again) was the hardest freaking thing I ever did, and I wish I had sought some motivation before 1996. This is straight talk that I know most don’t want to hear, though you’ve said most of these things to yourselves for years. You and I both know that. Quitting is the best thing I ever did!!!! I want you to quit because you will be so happy you did, and we all get to enjoy sharing time on this planet with you for even longer. No one regrets quitting. Find me one person who said “Damn, I wish I hadn’t quit smoking so soon. That was so stupid! Hand me a lighter...”

So how did I start? It was 1976 and I was only 13. I snuck into my mom’s car one night when my parents were out. I found a half-smoked cigarette in her ashtray and lit it up. I puffed on it a couple times and thought, this is kind of boring. Then I inhaled. Tears streamed down my face as I coughed deep and hard for minutes that felt like hours. The taste was absolutely disgusting and the experience was anything but pleasant. It was painful. But I wanted to be cool. I wanted to experience this thing all the cooler kids or "sophisticated" adults were doing.

It wasn’t a right of passage, it was me feeding into my own insecurities and thought that a five-foot two-inch kid would appear bigger and tougher and stronger by smoking. Even though my body did everything it could to tell me this should not be, I persisted. I tried it again a few days later. And then with friends. The resistance and hacking eventually subsided and I started to enjoy it. Then I started to need it. Then I was 33 and a 20-year smoking veteran, wondering what if I got the diagnosis today, and my kids came to see me in a hospital with tubes and ventilators, and I had three months to live, asking me “What about us?” Well I finally wised up and said no more. How long will it take you?