Sunday, January 12, 2014

Where There's Smoke

Fifty years ago, on the 11th of January, Surgeon General Luther Terry released a report that would change the habits and lives of all of us. The report on smoking and health, the result of a long and deep study of the effects of tobacco, stated unequivocally that smoking, especially cigarette smoking, was hazardous to our health. Later reports would improve on the breadth of the study, eventually culminating in the smoking ban now in effect in public places, and reduction in smoking related health issues, such as cancer, emphysema, pneumonia, just to name a few.

I was born in a town that depended on two industries: textiles and tobacco. And like most people I knew, cigarettes were socially acceptable in restaurants, stores, homes and cars. There were exceptions, of course: public transportation, movie theaters, the public library were some of the very few places where "No Smoking" signs were found. Generally, though, people smoked everywhere without censure. Oh, there were some folks who didn’t smoke, and would ask that you not smoke in their homes, but they were the exception.

Like most of my contemporaries, I picked up the habit when I was about 17 or 18. It was "cool" and pleasurable (once you learned how to inhale). Movie stars and industrialists and even doctors recommended smoking for all kinds of reasons and, truth to tell, it was just something one did in those years.

Fifty years ago I was still smoking, though the report did give me something to think about. I had been a pipe smoker since college (writers and pipes seemed to fit each other), and when the report came out I did pay attention. I didn’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as most people, but there was always a pipe in hand or mouth, and a lot of stuff in my pockets or on my desk to support it. For several years I shared a writing office with two others. One was a health addict, but Judy, whose husband had been a heavy smoker before his early fatal heart attack, was a smoker, too. (For a while, just because she was that kind of person, she would sit by the window smoking cigars, more for the effect on people outside at the bus stop, than anything else.) Over the years I nearly stopped cigarette smoking altogether, preferring the aroma and aura that seemed to surround the writer image. I had a special pouch that carried two pipes and tobacco, cleaners, tools and so on. I rotated through my collection, selecting three different ones for each day, and I spent a fair amount of time cleaning them. It was more ritual than habit by then.

Time passed, I wavered between giving up all tobacco, smoking cigarettes more than the pipes and even (for a short time) cigars. I traveled a lot in those years, and airplanes and some of the places I went, like Viet Nam, weren’t compatible with the ritual or the practice of pipe smoking. I held on, even though I had, by the late 60s, made a career move that involved writing and producing films focused on health care and medical research. After all many, if not most, of the researchers with whom I had daily contact, were still puffing away.

I no longer recall the justification I used to continue the habit, but I do remember when I decided to quit. Our daughter and so-in-law had stopped by after dinner to tell us that we were going to be grandparents! I sat there, listening to the happy talk about the future. It came to me that one thing I wanted was be to around to see this child-to-be, grow up. I can still picture the setting, the scene, and see my hand reach out to the package of cigarettes on the end-table beside my chair. There was one left in the pack. I thought that maybe now was the time. I put the pack back on the table and decided that I would "save it for later," as a first step in assuring my presence when that grandchild was growing up. Six months later I threw the pack away. And I’m glad I did. The youngest grandchild is now a woman in her late twenties, and by some good fortune, my health shows no effects of the tobacco years.

Happy Anniversary, Dr. Terry. And thank you.

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