“When I grew up and fell in love, I asked my sweetheart – ‘what lies ahead?'”
I’ve become immune to those gross, graphic anti-smoking ads with their scary x-rays, pustulating blood vessels full of white gook, blackened and atrophied internal organs – even the lady with the artificial voice box doesn’t phase me any more. There’s something about this latest ad by the anti-smoking folks, though. A middle-aged man with advanced cancer (of the lung variety, presumably) forces himself out of his home hospice bed – thin, bald, weak – to slow dance with his wife as an eery cover of that perennially cheery Doris Day song, “Ce Sera Sera” plays for us.
Smoking has been a mystery to me for most of my life. I like to think that my complete lack of discipline and aversion to activities that don’t provide instant gratification has actually served me well in this instance. In the late 1970s, we knew smoking was bad for us. But we were starting to hear about all sorts of things that were “bad” for us. Egg yolks (Really? Some people are still stuck on that one today), coffee, chocolate, salt and so on. Yet, I personally consumed gallons of diet soda in high school, and that was just super. Very healthy – if you enjoy poisoning yourself, that is. So, there were confusing signals being sent about what was healthy or not…. and smoking was “cool”. Skinny people smoked. Movie stars smoked. Despite the efforts of the American Cancer Society, things really weren’t much different in 1975 than they were in 1955. I was handed my first cigarette at a house party when I was 14. “This is it”, I thought. “My parents are going to kill me, but I’m finally going to be cool.” The fact is, there was really no way I was ever going to be cool in high school, and this was destined to be yet another ill-fated attempt in that regard. I took one drag. That’s all, she wrote. Thirty seven years later, I still don’t understand how inhaling something that tastes like a combination of the exhaust from a diesel engine, smoke from a raging house fire and the air surrounding the old Bethlehem Steel plant circa 1970 can be pleasurable for anyone. If that’s someone’s idea of pleasure, I sure don’t want to know what else they have going on in their spare time. This, I’m sure, sounds like a harsh judgement. And maybe I wasn’t as much of a brainless sheep in high school as I’ve always thought myself to be. There really was a limit on what I was willing to do to be popular, and thank God for that.
It really boils down to being “cool”, doesn’t it? Talk to anyone from any generation, and that’s what it’s all about. Even now, with everything we know about smoking, there are kids doing it. Go ahead and ask them why. It’s cool…. but nowadays, though, I think it’s a different kind of “cool”. It’s an “I’m a bad-ass, anti-authority, screw my parents” sort of cool. Yeah, wonderful, here’s a healthy helping of proving your point, and it comes with many great side dishes – stinky breath, smelly clothes and hair, and a laundry list of health issues. Good for you. The other reason I’m given for smoking is that it “relieves stress”. With all due respect to people in stressful situations everywhere, that is just ass-backward. Let’s relieve my stress by doing something that makes me stink and will most likely kill me someday. Death. The ultimate stress reliever.
Really, the companion to the anti-smoking campaign should be the anti-attractiveness campaign. I just do not get it. I might not have had men beating down my door to date me, but it was not because I stunk of smoke, coughed chronically and uncontrollably all the time and peed my money away on something like cigarettes. (This is where the readers think to themselves – “It must have been your sweet, non-judgmental personality that attracted them ….”). I mean, if you’re going to acquire a bad habit, at least find one that doesn’t do all of this in addition to aging you prematurely (love those lines around the lips, ladies).
Now, we all have bad and/or unhealthy habits. At the top of my list is unhealthy eating habits and an aversion to exercise. One might argue that I’m just as likely to kill myself as my friend the cigarette smoker is. And I have to agree with that. At least when they find me prone on the kitchen floor in front of the open refrigerator door, I’ll smell good (depending on how many days have passed, of course).
I’ve asked people of all ages about this anomaly in an attempt to understand why it still exists in the new millenium. What I’ve been told over and over again is that it is a habit that is incredibly difficult to overcome. Quitting smoking has been compared to everything from child birth to kicking heroin. Since I’ve never successfully given up fatty food and bad carbs, I’m not going to pass judgement on this argument.
Back to that commercial. That really says it all to me. What price are we putting on being “cool” or “skinny” or whatever our rationale is for smoking? Why are we so willing to acquire a taste for it? (I say “acquire a taste for it”, because nobody can make me believe that they took their very first puff of a cigarette and proclaimed “Mmmm, this is the most delicious thing EVER.”). What price is too high in exchange for whatever questionable benefits you may glean from this dubious habit? I say again…. I just do not get it.
That commercial haunts me. Its predecessors are just plain gross, but this one gets to the heart of the matter. Look, Mother Nature is incredibly fickle. There is no real rhyme or reason to how she decides who gets to live or die – who dies when or how or where. How many times have we been tormented by the death of a child, marveled at the wonder of a nonagenarian with a mind as sharp as a tack, mourned the loss of a parent of young children or a serviceman or woman and wondered at the mystery of it all? The smoking habit, if nothing else, certainly shrinks the mystery. Nothing anyone can say will cause it to make sense to me. It all boils down to this: life is full of choices. You know, it’s like you’re walking down a dark, secluded street at night when you’re accosted by a psychopath wielding a knife. You can fight back and hope that the knife won’t find it’s mark, or you can pull a gun out of your pocket, hand it to him, and say “here, try this instead.”