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Cigarettes: A Personal History

Some recent blog posts on this site have reminded me that there are still CrossFitters who smoke cigarettes or are in the early stages of quitting. Even those of us who do not smoke have friends and relatives who do and who would like to quit. And you don’t have to be a healthcare professional to offer advice and assistance to those trying to quit. Before getting to the specific advice it’s worthwhile reviewing the recent cultural history of cigarette smoking and how dramatically it has changed. And if I may, I’ll do so recounting my own experience with cigarettes.

I began smoking in junior high…let’s say about 1965. We all respond differently to different psychoactive drugs, but it turned out that nicotine hit my neurotransmitter sweet spot. I recall that my first cigarette made me slightly sick, but the next 150,000 or so (one to two packs a day for 13 years) were glorious. Cigarette smoking was also at that time the most effective way of demonstrating one’s coolness. And as a 14 year old who looked like a 10 year old I could walk into any corner grocery store or gas station and buy cigarettes (for $0.30 a pack), no questions asked. Even before I started smoking cigarettes, were still a part of life. In my 7th grade art class we spent a few weeks on ceramics and pottery. The most popular project was an ashtray for mom and dad.

A few years later as the 60s wore on high school students argued that as 18-year-olds who were old enough to be drafted it was silly to prohibit smoking. And so in many high schools there were smoking lounges or outdoor patios set aside for student smoking. And of course when the door to the faculty lounge opened smoke would come billowing out.

A few years later I was in fact drafted into the Army where cigarettes were deeply ingrained in the culture. The phrase “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,” was the universal command given to soldiers meaning, “You’re now free to do whatever you like, smoking a cigarette being an obvious good choice.” The cost of cigarettes was subsidized at the PX costing only $0.15 a pack…less than one penny per cigarette. I liked to buy multiple cartons at a time and build walled formations out of the cigarette packs—a fortress against nicotine deprivation.

Upon discharge from the Army I returned to college at the University of Minnesota. At that time smoking was permitted in the classroom, depending upon the dictates of the fire marshal. In fact in buildings that allowed smoking the University thoughtfully provided maroon and gold, cardboard and foil cutouts that could be folded into little origami ashtrays. In 1975 Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation—The Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act—that regulated smoking in public place. It’s only requirement at the time was to was to mandate that restaurants set aside a specified no-smoking section. It was, to say the least, loosely enforced. One of my favorite hang-outs, Mickey’s Diner, set aside one stool at the counter as the no-smoking section. Mostly patrons vied to occupied this stool and smoked in deliberate defiance of the law.

At that time smoking was still permitted on airlines. Just a few minutes before take-off the “No Smoking” light would come on. Once the plane reached several thousand feet smoking was again permitted. The logic was that in the event of a crash a lit cigarette might ignite the jet fuel. Those few minutes of non-smoking felt like a very long time. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the instant the No Smoking light went off, half the passengers fired up.

Some movie theaters (not enough!) at the time provided separate smoking sections. I fondly recall smoking about half a pack seeing The Godfather Part II at the Cooper Theater. It’s worth noting that at this time the only thing considered in deciding where you could or couldn’t smoke was the fire hazard. Questions of health or of the comfort and sensibilities of non-smokers were not relevant.

Doctors used to provide helpful advice on which brand of cigarette to smoke.
Doctors used to provide helpful advice on which brand of cigarette to smoke.

I started chiropractic college in 1974. I’m guessing about 1/3 of the students, myself included, smoked. We did so without embarrassment, shame or in recognition of grotesque irony of a healthcare provider smoking cigarettes. Why would we feel any differently? Any doctors’ office or hospital waiting room still provided ashtrays for their patients. I finished my schooling in 1978, still a smoker. Keep in mind the following:

The definitive scientific study linking cigarettes to lung cancer was published in 1950. During the decade of the ‘50s many other high quality studies positively identified cigarette smoking as a cause of multiple of the serious health conditions. In 1964 a committee formed by US Surgeon General, Randall Terry, MD, compiled and summarized this evidence and dryly concluded:

“Cigarette smoking contributes substantially to mortality from certain specific diseases and to the overall death rate.”

Tennis and cigarettes: A perfect match

And yet smoking rates continued to increase throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, particularly among women. Astute marketers had managed to capitalize on the feminist movement creating the notion that a liberated woman was one who smoked her own brand of cigarettes—Virginia Slims. The cognitive dissonance of a cigarette brand being a major sponsor of a sporting event seemed to bother no one.

Even though I loved smoking and was a voracious consumer of cigarettes, I had over the years attempted to quit, and failed, many times. Each time I tried to quit I was faced with the punishing truth that quitting smoking meant giving up:

  • Cigarettes with coffee;
  • Cigarettes with beer and wine and whiskey;
  • Cigarettes and food;
  • Cigarettes and reading the newspaper;
  • Cigarettes with reading books in bed;
  • Cigarettes and watching television;
  • Cigarettes and flying in airplanes;
  • Cigarettes and movies (where permitted);
  • Cigarettes and driving a car;
  • And my all-time favorite, smoking cigarettes in the cold, clean air while riding a ski lift.

Give up all this so I wouldn’t die of lung cancer in the 40 years? It made no sense.

But shortly after finishing my schooling in 1978 I did finally succeed. I’m telling you this personal and cultural history of smoking because these anecdotes illustrate several important principles about successful and unsuccessful strategies to quitting smoking. I’ll discuss those strategies in next week’s installment.


2 responses to “Cigarettes: A Personal History”

  1. A subject near and dear to my heart. I was never a smoker or drinker until my first year at a Catholic women’s college, when I was assigned a room on the “smoking floor” of the fresh(wo)man dorm. Smoking seemed to go well with being an art major in my 18 year old brain, and I relied on it through a decade’s worth of jobs in the food & beverage industry, where being a smoker is a pretty reliable excuse to get away from your customers. I finally quit three years ago when I became pregnant, but I STILL struggle with the urge and I dream about smoking all the time!


  2. I am very interested in the next installment . I am the world’s biggest anti smoker having been the child who grew up in the “blue smoked filled house”. Coming down the stairs in the morning into the smoky haze because my mother had to get up to have a cigarette, no way she could sleep through the night without one. I was the little kid who always smelled like cigarettes- ugh- probably not as much as an anomaly then as it is now but when I smell cigarette smoke on a small child I recoil inside!! My mom smoked 3 packs a day and I tried everything to get her to quit but she was one of the stubborn “I will smoke if I want too” types- that is until Hannah Wydeven was born.
    I told her that I wanted her to be a big part of her granddaughter’s life but I would not bring my child into that house- Finally there was something greater than her desire to smoke and she quit! It was difficult. She used the patch and there were a few nights that she said she thought she was going to die in the process, but she did it and she was cigarette free for 13 years! She ultimately died of lung cancer at the young age of 69. But those 13 years cigarette free she said were so liberating, not planning her life around smoking and she took up walking and biking and playing with her grandchildren. So while it may have been too late to undo the damage of 40 some years of smoking quitting still enhanced her life!
    The truth of the matter is- smoking kills you. I am not one to sugar coat this. So quit now while you can repair your lungs.


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