Tuesday, September 09, 2003

More from the health beat

I was wrong, fooled by a carefully worded Associated Press story which reported that Warren Zevon had died from lung cancer, and noted also that he was a lifelong smoker, but did not actually propose a causal relationship between these facts. That's pretty sneaky and, editorially speaking, questionable, if you ask me. But I am again reminded of a Woody Allen line from Annie Hall to the effect that he's a bigot for the left, so it's okay--i.e., it's okay for the AP to stretch the truth if it's for a good cause. Or something. Hmm.

So as Charles noted in his comment on my last, Zevon died of mesothelioma, a lung cancer associated with asbestos, not tobacco. (My stepmother's grandfather also died of lung cancer stemming from asbestosis.)

For what it's worth, I became a regular smoker in eighth grade. I remember the pack of Marlboro reds I bought then, probably from a cigarette machine in a restaurant. I waited till one afternoon when no one else was home, and then I went outside and smoked a cowboy killer. It made me nauseous. But I was a diligent addict even then, and I knew that with perseverance I could overcome the nausea and attain that glittering title: Smoker. And so I did.

Freshman year in high school was when my habit really kicked in. I started attending a prep school in downtown Nashville and took the city bus there, so for the first time I had whole afternoons of unsupervised time in parts of the city distant from my family. So I smoked a lot waiting for the bus. I had a friend at the time I admired a lot who smoked filterless brands--Luckies, Camels, Chesterfields, Pall Malls--so I picked up this habit, too. I was a pack-a-day Lucky smoker throughout high school. When I started driving I had a classic car, a 1964 Corvair, and I imagined that the filterless smokes and the old Chevy combined to give me an undeniable retro sex appeal. In high school I also enjoyed trying various esoteric brands, imported brands, and whatnot: Gitanes, Gauloises, Rothmans, Nat Shermans, English Ovals. One pleasure back then was to scan the cigarette racks of the tiniest, most out of the way drugstores and grocery stores I could find--often deep in rural Tennessee--to see what obscure American brands of filterless smokes I could turn up. This is how I got introduced to the Raleigh and Philip Morris brands.

By the time I started college in Chicago I had switched brands permanently: Winston Lights, with occasional forays into the world of Marlboro Lights. The filterless squares had gotten to be too much, and I couldn't really even handle regular cowboy killers anymore. (What's the marketing term for those? Full flavor? Doesn't matter.) I still smoked a pack a day for the first couple of years of college and then stopped for about three years. I had a steady girlfriend at the time, and I think I stopped for her. (N.B.: Confirmed addicts like occasionally to curtail their habit "for" someone else--this brings a keen sense of martyrdom that is itself addictive.)

At about age 24 I started back, though never again at a pack a day. By now my brand of choice was what is sometimes called OPs: other people's. I mooched for about seven years. At first, I was spending a lot of time with a very accomodating friend who bought rolling tobacco in giant tins, and he was always happy to share. But when I moved to Madison to start graduate school, my mooching habits endured. I continued bumming despite the fact that my new friends bought regular cigarettes, which were more and more costly, and my smoking chums conveyed to me--with words, with body language--that they resented the mooching. In this period I smoked probably five to ten cigarettes a week, sometimes as many as five a day.

I tried quitting several times in this interval, but the problem was always the same: it was very difficult not to smoke when I was drinking, and I drank a lot. Even so, when I quit drinking in August 2001, my smoking increased a bit, and I even bought a pack or two before I reverted to OPs. But the cost of smokes continued to spiral upward, and as I worked on trying to become a better person I realized that my mooching was grotesquely unfair, especially inasmuch as the burden of it fell mostly on the one or two confirmed smokers I saw most regularly. When New York City banned most public smoking last year, I read an article the Times ran about New Yorkers who smoke OPs, and I remember thinking: These people are pathetic. And then I thought: So am I. So in August 2002, a year after I hopped on the wagon, I quit smoking. I read somewhere that one useful method is to pick a day, and so I did. That day I just quit, though admittedly I'd had something like a seven-year tapering off.

And so I'm an ex-smoker again, this time for a little more than a year. I do inhale a lot of secondhand smoke, though: I play a weekly gig at a bar that at times is so smoky it looks as though the London fog has crept in. And I suspect this is taking a toll. I often feel just awful afterward, and sometimes the effects of the secondhand smoke linger well into the next day. I suspect this can't be good for my health in the long run. Something may have to give.

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