An Open Letter from an Inveterate Smoker to the Anti-Cigarette Crusaders
(Note: This piece is from 1994 and rereading it thirteen years later I can see that its tone makes it susceptible to misunderstanding. So let me say that, notwithstanding judgments expressed about the accuracy of smoking’s dangers and the zealotry of the anti-smoking crusaders, the piece was never intended to promote, condone or make light of the use of cigarettes. Coming from the mindset and emotions of the intransigent and put-upon smoker, my purpose was to illuminate where his habit and his resentment toward the antismoking campaign might be rooted. I especially wanted to convey that one becomes addicted not to a drug per se, but to what the drug makes one feel.)
“Do you smell that? Someone must be smoking in here. Is someone smoking in here?”
Yeah, someone is smoking in here. It’s me. I’m smoking insistently and unapologetically. And the next fool who asks that question within earshot of me, I’m going to spill his yogurt into his sneakers and scatter his lecithin granules.
I know I’m expected to be contrite about my cigarette habit and that the unrepentant attitude I’m displaying is a source of consternation to you. You wonder how I justify it. Could I somehow remain ignorant of the jeopardy my cigarette puts you in?
Well, I could remind you that studies from which you draw your ammunition—studies by the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization—have been shown to be less than reliable. I could point out that one of these studies was, in fact, deemed fraudulent by a federal court, and that the stabbing of a California waiter who demanded that a restaurant customer extinguish his cigarette is the only real example that we have of a smoker killing a non-smoker. But the possibility that the danger I represent to you has been exaggerated, or that it may even be bogus, has nothing to do with my position. Even if I was thoroughly persuaded that side-stream smoke is a genuine threat to you, your face in my cigarette would still provoke my anger.
So where am I coming from? Why am I holding on? Am I helplessly nicotine-dependent? The prisoner of a compulsive oral fixation? One of those combination suicidal/homicidal maniacs who wants to take you out along with himself? Worse, am I some kind of First Amendment freak?
No. It’s none of the above. What it is, friends, is something we both have in common, something we share. Like you I’m dealing with an out-sized fear of dying.
Just like you (whether you conceptualize it in this manner or not), I live too intimately with the knowledge that I was born under a death sentence that can’t be pardoned and that might be invoked at any time and in any of numberless ways. And just as it does with you, my hyperawareness of my eventual dissolution—of the hideous fate that nature has in store for me—forces me to live not only with too much consciousness of my vulnerability but also with a crippling burden of guilt.
I must have done some serious shit to be in so much trouble.
So, like you, and in order to fully partake of the world, I need to feel less vulnerable, less guilty and less afraid. Like you I need to believe that I have some control over my destiny and that I’m doing what I can to perpetuate myself for as long as possible. Where we part company is in how we’re pursuing our internal equilibrium, in what we’ve discovered can work for us in this regard.
What you’ve been handed with the certification of tobacco as the “number one cause of preventable death” is a winnable battle to wage with mortality—a project which, by every measure, is a terrific way to address and alleviate dread and diminish guilt. Indeed, it can be an intoxicating thing. You can float around believing that you’re securing an extension of your life by ridding the air of a lethal pollutant. At the same time, you can feel that by protecting other lives—by the absolute righteousness of such work—you’re acquitting yourself of any and all transgressions in past lives or in this one. If you become sufficiently obsessive about it you can even get to feel sometimes that everything that’s wrong has been reduced to a single locus and that you’re engaging—and wounding—evil itself. Not only can you move with less trepidation in the world, but you’re positioning yourself for an ultimate promotion to heaven, an infinite perpetuation of yourself.
That’s a very good deal.
But if the “bad news” about cigarettes has been a boon for you it’s also presented me with an opportunity to address my problem with mortality. I’m referring, specifically, to the consequence of cancer that cigarettes propose. Cancer, at once the most insidious and retributive of diseases and a disease that ordinarily takes decades to develop.
My emotional circumstances inclining me to assume the worst as a given, it was automatic for me to interpret the authoritative conclusion that I risked the most hideous of results when I smoked as a certainty. I immediately took it for granted that I would die of cancer if I smoked. If, for you, a similar reaction was a good reason to demonize cigarettes, for me the opposite was true. My attraction to cigarettes, already strong but not yet compulsive, took the leap into addiction. I recognized that there was an inherent blessing in the certainty of a cigarette-induced death, and that it was a considerable one.
When, and not so long ago, smoking was perceived as a minor vice or a vaguely unhealthy practice, the best you could do with a cigarette was to use it as a surrogate tit to suck on in moments of tension or as an aid in the fabrication of a social posture designed to mask insecurity and self-doubt. Cigarettes were a wonderful palliative and piece of business, but those functions constituted the limits of their utility. Now, however, I could derive that much and more from cigarettes.
By smoking cigarettes, by implicitly taking on the most terrible of deaths, I could effect an arrangement with nature that served to ease my anxieties at their very root. By embracing the ultimate punishment, I could, that is, own a sense of being insulated against all other causes of death. And armored in this way by my cigarette habit I could feel not only less likely to die by accident or violence or from germs, but significantly free of the constraints guilt imposed on my ability to experience pleasure.
Moreover, with my sense of immunity to such eventualities, I could feel something like confident of thirty to forty years of survival on the planet—many more years, certainly, than I could otherwise feel confident of. Finally, I could feel that cigarettes might ultimately assure my salvation itself, that I could arrive at the moment of judgment having fully atoned for my felonies as well as my misdemeanors and with at least a balanced account.
You expect me to give this up?
I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that what I’ve come up with is insane, stupid, grotesque and awful and, in this case, you’ll be right. But in as much as your cause is fueled by what, just perhaps, is less than solid fact, and since you’ve placed yourself on the side of angels who after all may not exist, I would think you’d appreciate that certain existential horrors are impervious to rational responses and that insanity and stupidity are often best understood, not as handicaps or pathological conditions, but as tools we employ to keep our sense of balance in creation.
So are we straight with this now? What we have here is a collision of self-perpetuation projects and, given the urgency of our needs and the diametric opposition of our methods, a situation without an equitable resolution. I mean I don’t want to hurt anybody but, much as I’d prefer it otherwise, I can’t demonstrate any more consideration for your need to stay afloat in creation than you can for mine.
Of course in this respect we’re alike still again. We both mimic nature herself.