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W.E. Gutman: That devil tobacco

The Long View

Posted: July 10, 2010 7:44 p.m.
Updated: July 11, 2010 4:55 a.m.

This column originally ran in The Signal in February 2007. The urgency of a recent development prompts its republication today.

I was 12 when I smoked my first cigarette. I had filched it from my mother’s pack of aromatic Turkish imports and puffed in front of a mirror, to see how it made me look. Held between middle and forefinger, the yellow-paper, gold-tipped cigarette, I thought, lent me an air of rakish refinement. The girls will swoon, I was crowing, exalting my likeness and savoring my imminent elevation to alpha male status.

The cigarette made me violently me ill. I felt dizzy, then nauseous. I threw up and collapsed on the bathroom floor in a cold sweat as the world began to spin around me.

A week later, I pilfered another cigarette, lit it but wisely refrained from inhaling. This buffoonery lasted several years.

Then, one day, having consumed a whole pack and scurried to my local drugstore to buy a fresh carton, I realized I was hopelessly hooked.

I was 20.

Thirty years (and 250,000 cigarettes) later, coughing and wheezing, unable to climb a flight of stairs without panting, diagnosed with heart disease and other smoking-related disorders, I quit. Cold turkey. No patches. No pills. No hypnosis.

No counseling.

Only sheer will, I felt, could help expiate 30 years of weakness and abject self-abuse. Yes, for 30 years I had gone to bed with a cigarette in my mouth and my first daily cup of coffee had been consumed to the accompaniment of half-a-dozen cigarettes.    

I smoked my last cigarette on Dec. 31, 1985. For two weeks I climbed the walls, craving for a smoke, especially after a good meal or a steaming cup of coffee. The diabolical symptoms of addiction lingered for a year but I stood firm, my resolve aptly reinforced by the sight of a smoker’s calcinated lungs, which my father, a physician, arranged for me to admire in the pathology department of a major New York hospital.

I have since become violently allergic to smoke. Smokers are not welcome in my home unless they abstain. I consciously avoid any venue that might expose me to someone’s foul exhalations.

Then came word that the nicotine levels that smokers typically absorb per cigarette rose dramatically in the past 10 years, perpetuating what a Harvard University study funded by the National Cancer Institute describes as a “tobacco pandemic” that makes it even harder for smokers to quit.

“Cigarettes are finely tuned drug delivery devices designed to perpetuate a tobacco pandemic,” said Howard Koh, the school’s associate dean for public health practice, and former Massachusetts commissioner of public health.

To boost amounts of nicotine inhaled by smokers, cigarette makers fortified the concentration of nicotine in their tobacco and modified cigarette designs to increase the number of puffs per cigarette, the Harvard researchers added. The end result is a product that is more addictive and deadlier than ever, the study concluded.

“Our findings call into serious question whether the tobacco industry has changed at all in its pursuit of addicting smokers,” said Gregory Connolly, director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Tobacco Control Research Program.

Connolly said tobacco companies failed to warn consumers about rising levels of nicotine since the 1998 settlement, in which states are mandated to step up scrutiny of the industry.

Tobacco industry officials have yet to comment.

I’m pushing 73. Three weeks ago, after 25 years of total abstinence, I was diagnosed with emphysema, a degenerative disease that, at my age, along with the other chronic conditions I battle, has irreversible and unforgiving consequences.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers cigarette smoking the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. Smokers, Next time you light up, look at yourself in the mirror and ponder this: You are consuming a product manufactured by a gang of criminals dedicated to killing you — at your own expense.

If this ghoulish revelation is not enough to make you mad and encourage you to quit forthwith, you risk joining the 450,000 people who die each year from lung cancer and other diseases related to tobacco use.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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