On Becoming An Ex-Smoker

The start of a new year brings out in almost all of us an urge for self-improvement. But not in me. I, you see, accomplished the mother-of-all-self-improvement projects over thirty years ago. And yes, I am still resting on those laurels because that self improvement project continues to pay dividends for my continued health and well-being. What, you might ask, was that grand accomplishment? That was when I quit smoking cigarettes for good.

My father smoked.  For as long as I could remember, I hated it.  He smoked in the house, smoked in his car, smoked everywhere.  A pack of Tareytons was probably never more than five feet away from him at any time.  The worst was when we were staying in a motel room.  Dad did not sleep well in a strange bed, so he would invariably wake up in the middle of the night.  And then I would wake up, assaulted by the acrid smell of his cigarette.

So naturally I started smoking in college.  It had been by accident, really.  Well the cigarette part.  My best friend Dan was my freshman roommate.  The very first thing we did when the parents left after unpacking up was to walk to a drugstore where we bought a box of fifty cheap cigars.  White Owl New Yorkers.  We smoked them up much quicker than you might think was possible.  Then we bought more.  I still have that first box, where it has served as a place for index cards with recipes written on them. We got through that first year as cigar smokers, but because there was no inhaling of the thick cigar smoke, there was no nicotine addiction.

Then I had a summer job where everyone smoked, but cigars were not allowed.  “They smell too bad” was the reason that was given.  Which I found hard to fathom, because nothing smelled worse than cigarette smoke.  One day I came upon a pack of cigs that someone had left sitting around because he had bought the wrong brand by mistake.  I smoked one.  And then another.  And, well, you can figure out the rest.

I started smoking Kents – I don’t know why, except maybe because I remembered that was what Dad smoked before the Tareytons. I also tried some of the classics like Luckies, Camels and Pall Mall. I thought the image of a guy smoking old school filterless cigarettes was my kind of counter-cultural, but I hated picking little bits of tobacco from my tongue. I settled on Viceroy, mainly because I didn’t know anyone else who bought them and I thought the name was cool.

I remember the day when I finally came out as a smoker to my father.  I was helping him on a project for his office when it developed that he had forgotten his lighter in his car.  He was dying for a cigarette.  And so was I.  I held out for a bit, then finally pulled my trusty Zippo from my pocket and said something like “Here – no sense in both of us being miserable”.  I still remember the look of surprise on his face.  Followed by his relief at being able to light up (a relief which I shared).

Not too long after that, I felt like a member of the club when I sat one summer afternoon with Dad on the pontoon boat at his lake cottage.  As we smoked cigarettes together he said “I’ll never quit.  I’ve tried many times, but I have to be honest and say that it will never happen.”

And then later that summer he suffered his first heart attack.  He was 46.  And he stopped smoking.  I, however, did not.  A year or so later I recall being a little annoyed when we were in a car together.  I was driving and he asked if I could crack a window because the smoke was getting to him.  I wondered if he was struck by the irony. If so, he did not let on, and I cracked the window.

Three years after the heart attack the doctors discovered a spot on one of his lungs.  It was cancer.  He was 49 and had not had a cigarette for three years.  He had one lung taken out.  That was finally it for me and I quit in my second year of law school.  For five years.  It was not easy, but I finally had to admit that for every 90 year old still smoking with no apparent ill effects, there was someone like Dad.  And I knew that the genes I had inherited came from my father, not from that hypothetical 90 year old still-healthy smoker.

Then one day a friend visited and forgot his cigarettes when he left.  I called him and he said he would get them the next day.  I was out of school and living alone by then, and I vividly recall thinking to myself “I can smoke one of these just for fun.  I’m not addicted any more.  Nobody will ever know.”  And so I did.  A Marlboro.  About an hour later I did the same thing.  “Nobody will ever know” I thought.  Again.

“Just one more” proved to be a really terrible idea.

By the middle of the next day two things were clear.  I owed my buddy a fresh pack of Marlboros, and I was a smoker again. I spent the next two years quitting smoking at least every three weeks.  This time it was Marlboros. I didn’t buy into the “Marlboro Man” image, but I decided that I liked them better than I had liked my Viceroys.

By now I was living in own house and at least resolved that I would not smoke indoors.  This was the late 1980s and “nonsmoking” was just beginning to be a thing in places.  Like my office.  But there were still some places where it was allowed, like in the entry corridor or in the furnace room in the basement.  One of my first jury trials is memorable because there were ashtrays on the counsel tables in the courtroom.  Every time the jury went out My clients would light up, I would light up, the opposing parties would light up and the judge would light up in his robe on the bench.

My next trial I had to go into the court office to smoke.  The one after that I had to go outside the back door of the courthouse.  I realized then, as I tried to avoid raindrops under a tiny overhang outside of a back door, that my smoking was going to become a real problem in my line of work.

Then I met the future Mrs. JPC.  She was not a smoker but her mother was.  I remember being thrilled the first time I went to thanksgiving at her mother’s house where the entire extended family was in attendance.  I walked in and was suddenly transported back to 1966 from the probably 8 or 10 people smoking away in the house.  I flicked my Zippo and added one more.  Being a smoker among other smokers was, more than ever, like being in a club.

But I was still trying to quit.  Everyone said you needed to really change your life to make it stick.  I saw no bigger life-change on the horizon than my upcoming wedding.  So I did it.  May 5, 1990 is notable for two major events in my life.  I got married and I had my last cigarette.

This time it took for good.  I have proved to myself that I can have an occasional cigar and not want another for maybe a year or two.  It was the same with a pipe. But I also know from hard-won experience that one cigarette would be a disaster.  Which is why the occasional dreams I still have about smoking are so panic-inducing to me. I woke up from one such dream recently.  In that dream I was frantically searching for my cigarettes.  I could not recall when I had last smoked one, though I certainly had earlier in the day.  I remember being upset at myself for allowing myself to fall back into an old addiction, but I was saved from this regret (and from the search for my pack of cigarettes) by waking up.  The sense of relief was incredible.

I am going to admit that there are still times when I would love to hear the “clink” of the lid flipping up on the old Zippo (the best cigarette lighter in the history of the world) and then to take that first, satisfying drag on a cigarette.  But I dare not.  I also miss having something to keep my hands occupied in idle moments.  The act of smoking was really enjoyable.  But the side effects – like social friction and (especially) the physical addiction that had me looking for ashtrays or the almost-panicky need for an excuse to go outside for five minutes before the cravings drove me mad.

Now I look at the price of cigarettes in stores and wonder how anyone can afford the habit.  I’m a lawyer and I can’t afford it.  Or at least I have plenty of other things I would rather spend those kinds of dollars on.

I wrote here last year that I miss smelling pipes smoked by old men.  I do not, however, miss the smell of cigarettes. And my ability to avoid the habit is the reason I still have a smug, self-satisfied attitude around the first of the year when everyone else starts out on some kind of exercise or diet plan. Those are not for me – I accomplished The Big One, and one such massive personal improvement is all that should be expected of anyone. So yes, I believe I will have a slice of that pie, thank you.

33 thoughts on “On Becoming An Ex-Smoker

  1. Of course you used a Zippo, it’s the full sized Chrysler of lighters! Good on you for quitting, having to smoke outside the courtroom in the rain sounds annoying, but at least you didn’t have a job requiring lots of air travel. I’ve taken several trips with smoking co-workers and the schedule is planned around smoke breaks: Okay we’ll fly to this hub, but we need a couple of hours layover so I can have a smoke break then go through security again and we’ll continue….

    I guess I smoked cigarettes before I was born, there’s a photo of my very pregnant mother smoking at some family function. I was never tempted though, cigarettes being more expensive in Canada. Mom smoked from age 12 to 50-ish, I don’t recall any grand announcement that she’d quit, she just seemed to smoke less and less until we noticed she wasn’t smoking at all anymore. Hopefully it helped preserve her health, but she did die of cancer 3 years ago and Dad’s still here so there you go.

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    • My mother never smoked. When she was in nursing school she overheard one of her classmates bet someone that she could get my mother to start smoking. She lost. Marianne’s mother eventually quit too in kind of the same way your mother did.

      Your comment about the Zippo reminds me of the promotional car they commissioned in the late 40’s. Kind of like the Oscar Mayer wienermobile, only this one was a gigantic Zippo on wheels. And how appropriate that they used a Chrysler. 🙂

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  2. Good job, quitting. I quit 35 years ago but it is a strong addiction and occasionally the smell, which usually makes me cough now, will actually spark a brief desire, as crazy as that sounds.
    You are right about Zippos, though. Best lighter, ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You quit not too long before I did, so congratulations. I know what you mean about those brief moments of desire – I have often wondered what I would do if there was a cigarette guaranteed to have zero addictive nicotine. Would I light one up occasionally? It is very possible.

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  3. What an interesting read. The fact you recount your smoking habit in such detail (dates, places) is a nod to the power of addiction, J.P. Good on you for seizing the instance of your wedding to put the habit behind you for good. My father never smoked (to my knowledge) which I certainly took for granted, especially in an era where smoking seemed to be more the norm than not. I do remember how the billboards and TV commercials sought to present an image of confidence and swagger, as if smoking was the secret behind it. What a different world we live in now.

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    • I guess that is why I still find cigarette advertising of yore to be so fascinating – they really did capture an attitude that I identified with when I was smoking.

      I also find the addiction aspect fascinating and how it affects different people in different ways. One of my law school roommates could smoke regularly and then get in the car to drive home from Indiana to his family in Connecticut and not have (or want) a cigarette the entire time. I envied him, because I was the exact opposite and would be absolutely miserable if I had to go much over an hour without lighting up.

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  4. Well done!
    My Dad smoked all his adult life. He smoked the strongest brand he could find, unfiltered. He did however, refrain from smoking at my houses.
    My Mom smoked too, however when my firstborn came along, she decided she wanted to be around to see him growing up, and then my younger son too, so she kicked the habit cold turkey. She did pass in her elder years from a tumour that spread from lung cancer.
    I myself was always repelled by the habit, so never took it up. I was so glad when they made my workplace non smoking to go along with legislation at the time. Whenever I gave training seminars, I made my training room non smoking, to the delight of some and the objection of others.
    Now, the occasional cigar every few years is just fine for me.

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    • The culture has certainly changed. When I was in law school, end of semester exams were a major thing. There were three options for the three hour essay exams – the regular classroom, a “typing room” where you could bring a typewriter, and a smoking room.

      After I quit, I was really glad when restaurants went from having a non-smoking section to being non-smoking throughout. A non-smoking section was often close enough or badly separated from the smoking section so that you still got to smell the smoke.

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  5. A tough job, being that allegedly nicotine is worse than heroine!. I was never a cigarette smoker, my Dad smoked cigars and my Mom smoked cigs, so men didn’t smoke “effeminent” cigarettes. I still smoke cigars, but cut way back based on cost more than anything. My Dad lived to 87, smoking at least one to two cigars a day…no cancer, but congenital heart failure. My Mom lived to 88, some of those years as a two pack a day person, probably died from a list of about five things that were developing, including emphysema, but no cancer. The last ten years, I tried to get her to switch to American Spirits, with natural tobacco, but she neither wanted to pay the extra, or go out of her way from the corner gas station to buy them. There are people that believe that the killer aspect of cigarettes, is smoking the chemistry that is added to them, rather than strait tobacco.

    You are correct about nicotine in cigars, the way cigar tobacco is processed leaches nicotine out of the leaf, and the only way you can get a lungful of smoke, is if there is so much nicotine in it, it anesthetizes the lungs while you inhale. Inhale a cigar, and you’ll wish you could die! You’ll be lucky to be able to walk for a few minutes. There’s probably more nicotine in one cig stick than in 3 or 4 huge cigars!

    I have a brother-in-law that quit cigars about six years ago, and he detested cigarette smokers. Not only do they smell foul, like burning chemicals, but instead of the enjoyment of something, like he felt cigar and pipe people were involved in, he felt cigarette smokers were just junkies looking for their next fix. It wasn’t enjoyment, it was need. I went on a job to San Francisco one time, while I was taking care of my Mom, and before I left, I had my shirts professionally laundered and wrapped in plastic bags, and then kept them in luggage under my bed until I left. When I got to the hotel, I opened my bag, and everything stunk like burnt chemicals!

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    • It is funny how when you smoke, you never notice the residual smell that is in everything – your clothes, your car, your house. After you quit, you can tell immediately if the guy you are shaking hands with is a smoker because you can smell it all over him.

      I recall reading once that something about getting alcohol into your system acts to remove or displace nicotine, which is why the urge to smoke goes up so much when you have a drink or two. And I don’t doubt that there is a lot of nasty stuff in tobacco processed for cigarettes, including in the cigarette paper.

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      • This is actually on my mind because right after reading this the other day, I walked into a store behind a guy that literally reeked of poor quality cigarettes! He must have been a “car smoker”, and it was all over him and moving with him like a cloud! You know, you rarely smell this, and this level, any more.

        Smoking is so hand in hand with drinking, that I’ve see a few of the bars in one of the entertainment districts here, actually selling professionally packaged 3 stick cigarettes in a little box!

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  6. BTW, Zippo lighters? Only if they have the butane insert! No cigar smoker would knowingly taint the taste of high quality cigar tobacco by lighting it with gas (I.e. Zippo fuel). Best way? Cedar matches. I’m not quite sure they won’t find out some day, that all those people died of cancer inhaling gas from a Zippo!

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    • It is very true that a traditional Zippo does not work with a cigar or a pipe at all because of the strong odor/taste of the naptha fuel. However, I still think of the lighter itself as an engineering marvel and the company as offering the best customer service and guarantee in the world. They will still repair or replace any broken Zippo lighter you send them at no charge, no matter its age or condition. The butane lighter lacks the odor/taste, but you are carrying around a little plastic vial of highly combustible liquid, where the Zippo stores fuel by impregnating some dense cotton packing. I guess you get to pick your preferred risk. 🙂

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  7. Coming from a very long line of smokers, on both sides, perhaps I was predisposed to smoke. The first cigarette I ever had, at 13 or 14, was euphoric. This was both scary and delightful.

    My father smoked cigars, which are the most detestable things ever. His father, the oldest of five boys, smoked as did all his brothers. It didn’t matter that my grandfather died at 47 (likely due to a heart attack), the third one had a leg amputated due to poor circulation (likely tobacco induced), and the fourth had lung cancer. Only the second one lived past 60 and he quit smoking unfiltered Camels when they hit $1 per pack. Number 4 had owned my old ’63 Galaxie and loved Raleighs, a pack of which I found in the car one day about eight years ago.

    My mother’s father smoked. He finally quit, he told me, when he’d have one lit and didn’t remember having lit it. He then transitioned to cigars but did away with them by the time I was born. Oddly, due to some law suit, he had a chest x-ray every other year; his lungs cleared up to perfect condition within several years after quitting. My mother’s mother also smoked but quit at some point.

    My mother had an aunt who, along with her husband, smoked 20 cartons per month. Her husband only lit one match per day.

    So, yeah, I still get a hankering for a cigarette every once in a while. I never smoked regularly and gave the whole thing a second thought when I lit one on a gas stove and a wise-acre turned up the flame, causing my eye brows to singe heavily.

    I am not pro-smoker but I’m not anti-smoker. It’s a slippery slope, which thankfully I realized early on and have pretty much avoided in my adult life. Yet I can see how it was be galactically difficult to quit.

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    • Marianne had an aunt who smoked her unfiltered Camels right up until she died – in her late 80’s. I remember trying several of the old-time unflitered brands that were still available at the grocery stores in the early 80’s, but only occasionally.

      I have always been envious of guys like you who could occasionally smoke a cigarette then walk away not wanting another for months or years. Fortunately I never smoked as much as my father did – I stuck pretty close to a pack a day the whole time. I bought them by the carton the first stretch, but after the relapse would only buy a pack or two at a time (because they were always going to be my last). Dad confessed to me that he would get 1 carton a week when my stepmom went to the grocery, and would buy a second carton on his own which he kept hidden in his car and my stepmom didn’t know about, so he came pretty close to three packs a day.

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  8. I well remember my early hospital days when the nurses had a smoking lounge, (few doctors smoked even then), and even earlier my high school had a smoking lounge where the cool kids hung out. But I never smoked, I tried one cigarette once and couldn’t see the point of it, and hated the ashy taste and the smoke. My dad smoked when I was very young, (he would let us blow out the matches after supper) but quit in the 1960’s when he had a TIA (precursor to a stroke) at the age of 37 and the neurologist told him to cut out the cigarettes. He quit cold turkey, but always chewed gum after meals as a distraction, so the kitchen cupboard always had a stash of gum. I did palliative care in my early years, (setting up CADD pain pumps) and remember some really sad cases of patients in their 40’s with lung cancer.

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    • I remember the treat it would be as a kid when Dad would run out of cigarettes at a restaurant and would give me the 35 or 40 cents to get a pack from the cigarette machine. I loved pulling the lever.

      I knew even then that those who lose the lung cancer lottery die miserable deaths. But the mindset of the smoker is that 1) that won’t happen to me and 2) even if it might, this single next cigarette won’t be the cause of it. And we would hang onto the cases of the people still smoking into their 80s and ignore the ones who die young of cancer. My father, as it turned out, was never really healthy after having that lung out at age 49. He lived with shortness of breath from having only a single lung for a long time, then had a second heart attack at 56 and a couple of brain tumors (possibly secondary to the lung cancer) starting at 61. I have enjoyed something like seventeen healthy years after I turned 46 and am within a little over two years of outliving Dad.

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  9. In addition, I wanted to say, that all smoking is a bad habit, some, like cigarettes, far harder to quit than others. None of it is doing your lungs any good, even if you are not inhaling, due to second hand smoke. As a long time, now occasional, cigar smoker, I did want to say that there is a huge difference between quality cigars, now floating between 8 bucks and 15 bucks a stick, and what most people on here are likely to remember their Dads or Grandfathers smoking, which were probably poor quality, machine made, drug store cigars like Phillies, White Owl, Robert Burns, Optimo, or Swisher Sweets, et.al. Most all made by using homogenized sheet tobacco, HST is basically a sheet of tobacco made by floating tobacco bits and stems in a chemical solution to turn it into a sheet to feed into a machine that makes a sort of cigar, mostly in a range of about 43-45 ring and 5 inch length. These cigars bear little resemblance to a quality cigar, other than look and packaging, and if your memories are of Dad smoking a detestable smelling cigar, it was most likely these, and not hand rolled, premium long leaf sticks. My Dad was a long time Phillies Blunt smoker, which was a decent cigar, eventually turned into a crap HST cigar sometime in the 60’s or 70’s, and he didn’t start smoking better stuff until I started buying it for him, and he retired with less to spend money on. Still a bad ha it, tho….

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    • I think you are right about the differences between drugstore cigars and the good ones. I have not bought a cigar in years, but if I buy another it will be the good kind. Cheap cigars are kind of like cheap ice cream to me – it’s not good for you, so why not get some that is of really high quality so that the enjoyment outweighs the health risks.

      The other risks from pipes and cigars are the mouth cancers that can result. I had a grandfather and an uncle who were both pipe smokers but who quit as they got older – and fortunately never suffered ill health effects. I figure that if I can hold off taking up pipes or cigars until I’m maybe 75, I won’t give that kind of thing enough of a head start to get me. 🙂

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    • If you are going to buy another stick, and you’re in Indianapolis, May I recommend Smokers Choice in Brownsburg. I’ve lived all over the country, and I’ve never had an experience with a lounge full of lovable jamokes and goofballs, and decent premium cigar prices…it’s a local treasure. When I moved back to Milwaukee, I went to my old local cigar lounge here exactly once, and I missed Smokers Choice so much, I never went back to another local! But, I’m NOT trying to talk you into smoking again….

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  10. Well, good for you JP – kicking that cigarette habit for good. I never smoked cigarettes as I saw my mother have the need to light up, especially in stressful times. I didn’t want that feeling of needing a cigarette to calm my nerves. (A crisp cookie was/is a great stress reliever for me.) Like you, I didn’t care for the smoky smell in the car … the “I can’t breathe” feeling on a car trip. I was proud of my mom who quit smoking “cold turkey” in May 1985. You’ll recall my father’s abrupt departure with all the money at Christmas 1983 and at only soon-to-be 58 years old, Mom was not old enough to collect her own Social Security. So, we hired an attorney to obtain a divorce by default since we learned my father fled the country. This was so my mom could collect his Social Security since he abandoned her. We attended the hearing together on May 3, 1985 and after it was over Mom finished her pack of Pall Mall Golds. She left one pack in the freezer for years, but did not succumb. She missed having the cigarette in her mouth, so I brought home some plastic coffee stir sticks from work for her to keep in her mouth. I bought her more at an office supply store, but she wore the enamel off her teeth and at the next dental visit, the dentist suggested switching to a drinking straw cut in half – it worked! Just the right diameter and easier on the teeth. Mom also developed an affinity for jumbo frozen marshmallows – I never understood how that substituted for a cigarette, but it did and she never smoked again!

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    • I will still occasionally catch myself holding a pen cap between my fingers and putting it in my mouth like a cigarette, so I understand your mother’s habit. There are a lot of ex-smokers out there, and I think all of them deserve congratulations.

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      • You should try the straws when you have trials JP as my mom said they really helped – better than the hard plastic stir sticks and same diameter as a cigarette. Yes congrats are in order for anyone who has quit smoking. I worked for a trial attorney for years, then we went through a merger and they raised his rates $150.00/hour and all his longstanding clients went elsewhere and he left and went to work for the City of Detroit Law Department. Anyway, we had the Tort Reform Act of 1995 and plaintiff attorneys were filing lawsuits left and right before the cap was put on damages. We often had back-to-back trials. Poor Ed smoked like a chimney and they had no “smoke room” at the Firm and he was busy getting ready for trial after trial, with no time to run downstairs and hang out at the entranceway as he usually did, so he’d go into the stairwell to sneak a cigarette. I thought of him when I read your need to smoke during trials.

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