Adam Pulver | Unintended Consequences

I remember the first time I was offered a cigarette. It was in seventh grade. I was walking home from TCBY and saw a girl I knew from school, Susan, standing outside. Susan was the toughest girl I’ve ever met, and still have met to this day. She had transferred to our school after being expelled from the other school in the district for beating the living daylights out of another girl. She dated high schoolers, wore her JNCO jeans real low, had lots of piercings, and cursed a lot.

At that time, I was having some trouble in school. I was an easy target of bullies as a pudgy, uncoordinated, nerdy, artistic, “new kid” with a big mouth. I was the last one picked for sports teams, and the first one slammed into a locker. But no one messed with Susan.

Susan and I chatted for a bit before she reached into her pocket and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. With a cigarette held between her lips, she asked me if I wanted one. I didn’t really respond. I had never been with someone my age smoking a cigarette. Noting my nonreaction, Susan laughed and commented, “Hah, I didn’t think so. You’re not really the type.”

At that moment, I could’ve tried to buff up my image as a tough guy. I could have gotten Susan to think I was cool, and maybe she would’ve protected me. I could’ve said, “On second thought, yeah, I’ll have one.”

But I didn’t.

Smoking is not a matter of courage. In fact, it takes far more courage to resist the multitude of pressures encouraging smoking than to give in. You’ve got the “tough kids” like Susan. You have media images of glamorous movie stars smoking cigars and cigarettes. You’ve got cigarettes being sold at every corner store, gas station, supermarket, drug store and Wal-Mart you pass through every day of your life. We grew up with Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man, the Virginia Slims tennis tour, the Winston Cup of NASCAR, huge billboards and magazine ads for Kool, Salem and Parliament.

Real courage is resisting all of this, and resisting the notion that if you’re not an overcautious sissy, a rugged military man, a coward, you would inhale burning tar and one of the most addictive substances on earth on a daily basis.

Despite my ability to resist Susan and her Marlboros, despite the fact that the Surgeon General’s report on the link between smoking and mortality was released forty years, despite the fact that 400,000 people die each year of smoking-related illness, despite the fact that our generation has been told of the dangers of smoking since we were in elementary school, millions of Americans still smoke.

This is not a matter of individual choice. Rather, this is a public health problem. Secondhand smoke has been proven time and again to increase cancer risk in nonsmokers. When I go out at night, I smell of your smoke, and sometimes my clothes stink for days. I have to sit in a separate section of the restaurant so I can fully taste my food.

But, yes, the primary health effects of smoking will directly affect you, the smoker. But when you are too sick from emphysema to go to work and begin to collect social security disability insurance, who pays? When survivor benefits are given to your children because you died at age 40 of a massive heart attack, who pays? Who pays for the loss of productivity from the workforce? Who pays for the millions of smokers who receive their healthcare from the government when they need a lung transplant or palliative care before they die? Society, that’s who.

Smoking is stupid. There is no rational explanation for smoking in this day and age. But society has no obligation to let you do something stupid and harmful to yourself. Even if you are so reckless as to want to smoke cigarettes, the rest of society has every right to be concerned for you and your health.

If you are a true friend of someone, it is your obligation to do everything in your power to get them to stop smoking. I have a few of my own strategies:

1. You cannot smoke in my house, my car, my backyard, my bathtub, my closet, my porch, my garage, my outhouse.

2. When you leave a party for a cigarette break, I will loudly tell everyone you’re going on a cancer break. When you come back, I will ask if you’re dead yet.

3. I will not kiss a smoker. If I wanted to lick an ashtray, I would.

4. If you leave your cigarettes around, they may disappear.

5. I will not stop my car for a cigarette break or to buy cigarettes.

6. I will always insist on sitting in non-smoking seating at restaurants.

Smoking is not a small risk. If you are a regular smoker, the risk of you developing a related health condition that significantly reduces your lifespan is pretty darn big. I agree that there are risks worth taking in life, but there has to be some potential benefit in the calculation, and no other way to achieve the same benefit. So smoking gives you a rush? How about going for a run, climbing a mountain, or even masturbating instead? (By the way, smoking will make all three of these activities much more difficult over time.)

Tomorrow marks the American Cancer Society’s annual Great American Smokeout. I urge you to join me and millions of Americans in working to help rid the country of this nasty habit. Because while it doesn’t take courage to smoke, it certainly takes courage to try and quit. Friends don’t let friends slowly kill themselves with flaming tar sticks.<$>