The smoking gun

Inflamed by the free rations of World War I, our national love affair with cigarettes burns to this day

Photo Illustration by Don Button

Not long ago, I went to an American Indian casino to indulge my last remaining bad habit: gambling. I used to have many more bad habits, but I’ve been whittling them down, not without effort. I have what some people call an addictive personality. There were many of my sort at the casino, smoking like fiends. It’s one of the few remaining places under a roof where people who smoke can do so. And so they do. Copiously. Although I used to be a pretty heavy smoker, the smell of cigarette smoke now gives me an instant headache. My commitment to gambling was such, however, that I remained at the blackjack table, smoke and headache notwithstanding, until I’d contributed what money I had with me to the greater good of oppressed American Indians.

Most of the people around me were smoking those cheap generic cigarettes sold so prominently at convenience stores. The place was a temple of diversity. Rednecks sat cheek by jowl next to tiny little Hmong women who, themselves, were perched next to African-Americans, all transfixed by the whirring wheels of the slot machines that were grinding away their hard-earned money. And all of them were smoking. Addictive personalities. Like me. Only they didn’t have headaches.

They also didn’t have much money, and it showed—in their clothes, their teeth and their sallow complexions. It is mostly the poor who smoke these days, and they are made to pay rather heavy fares for being slow to get off the train of nicotine addiction. I quit smoking nearly 10 years ago. When I quit, my brand of cigarettes cost a little more than $20 per carton, or just more than $2 a pack. I smoked about 15 packs a week. Recently, I was shocked to notice that the cost of a carton of cigarettes had more than doubled since I quit. Most of that additional cost is due to taxes. If I were still smoking my same brand in the same volume as I did 10 years ago, I would be spending nearly $300 a month to satisfy my addiction. Anyone making minimum wage is going to be shelling out a pretty sizeable part of his or her salary in service to the habit. A pack-a-day habit will be fed by half an hour of work each and every day, if you smoke the cheaper generic brands. While the wealthy complain about double taxation on their stock dividends, low-wage cigarette smokers fork over payroll taxes and then, with what’s left, are taxed again and once again, by state and federal governments, all for the cigarettes they must have.

And they must have them. It’s an addiction. One of the hardest addictions to break. I quit drinking, too, which was a fairly addictive activity for me, and I can tell you that quitting smoking was far and away a harder habit to break. I’ve even heard former heroin addicts say that tobacco was a harder habit to kick than heroin. Check out an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting sometime. You’ll see lots of people who no longer drink, but you’ll see most of those reformed alcoholics huddled in the parking lot after the meeting, smoking.

I smoked my first cigarette in my 16th year, an unfiltered Chesterfield filched from my mother’s purse. Though it made me lightheaded and nauseated, I persisted, stealing a cigarette or two each day until I could smoke one in its entirety without the urge to throw up. Beyond that, I mastered blowing smoke rings and lighting my cigarettes with a match ignited by a neat and fearless scrape of my thumbnail (though I burned my thumb several times before perfecting this trick). Those Chesterfields were lung-searingly strong, and it may have been that they were called Chesterfields because they were made of old sofas. When smoked, that’s rather how they tasted.

What made me so determined to overcome a natural antipathy to this noxious weed was the fact that nearly everyone I wished to emulate smoked. Everyone who was older than I was smoked, and everyone I considered cool smoked as the precise existential centerpiece of their coolness. Humphrey Bogart smoked. James Dean smoked. My older hoodlum friends all smoked, and if I wished to be accepted by them, it was clear that I’d better smoke, too. Within a few months, I was no longer stealing the occasional Chesterfield from Mom’s purse; I was stealing change to buy my own hipper brand—Kools—at a quarter a pack.

That illicit Chesterfield from the perfumey interior of my mother’s purse was the first of approximately 438,000 cigarettes I would smoke over the next 30-some years of my life. Laid end to end, those 438,000 coffin nails made a cigarette well over a million inches long. While chasing girls, catching one to keep, making babies, writing term papers, completing an education, getting jobs, changing diapers and changing jobs, reading stories to my kids, going to parties, traveling, seeing movies, painting rooms, buying cars, visiting relatives and the myriad other things that make up a life, I also managed to find time to smoke the equivalent of a cigarette 109,500 feet long or, to put it yet another way, a cigarette 21 miles long. Twenty-one miles is the equivalent of 369 football fields laid end to end, which may explain why it’s no longer very likely that I can run the length of a single football field without serious risk of dire cardiovascular or respiratory consequences.

It’s probable that my 21-mile cigarette was lit for me before I was born, and before my mother was born, too. The national cigarette addiction really took hold during World War I, when farm boys and factory workers marched off to war and were given free cigarettes as part of their rations. The U.S. Army thus addicted that entire generation, and my grandfather was one such doughboy. Humphrey Bogart, the poster boy for smoking during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, picked up his habit in that same war, along with his lisp (he caught a piece of shrapnel that scarred his upper lip, giving him that distinctive way of speaking). Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, in love in a cloud of cigarette smoke, created the image most people wanted to copy, and so, when my generation’s idols—James Dean, Jack Kerouac, the early Beatles, Bob Dylan and a legion of others—presented themselves, they presented themselves smoking.

Of course, the military didn’t include those cigarettes as standard issue because World War I soldiers were clamoring for them; the military requested them, and Congress authorized buying them because tobacco companies scored a big government contract, and they did that, of course, by funneling money to influential politicians who got it done. Rather like now.

U.S. military deaths in 20th-century wars numbered roughly 615,000, but that number, as large as it is, is certainly dwarfed by the number of collateral deaths due to the addiction promoted and spread by the armed services. In 1999, for instance, 152,000 people died of lung cancer in the United States, and though all of those deaths were not caused by tobacco smoke, it is certain that the majority of them were. Conservatively, let’s say that half of those 1999 lung-cancer deaths were precipitated by smoking. That’s still 76,000 dead. By that reckoning, it only takes a little over eight years for deaths due to smoking-generated lung cancers to exceed all U.S. combat deaths for the entire 20th century. But lung cancer is only one of the cancers directly traceable to cigarette smoking. When all smoking-related deaths are compiled, they add up to 400,000 a year. By that reckoning, it only takes two years of smoking-related deaths to exceed all U.S. combat deaths over the course of the 20th century.

So, at age 16, when I lit my 21-mile cigarette, I was putting myself in harm’s way, taking a risk at least as significant as my grandfather took when he enlisted in the Army in hopes of going to France to fight the Kaiser and the dreaded Hun.

I extinguished my long cigarette a decade ago, and I don’t know why I was successful at quitting that time; I’d tried to quit smoking dozens of times before and had failed each time. (Mark Twain said quitting smoking was easy; he’d done it hundreds of times.) Anyone who has quit smoking will tell you, at length, just how difficult it was.

Starting to smoke, however, is still fairly easy once you get past the gag reflex. And you’ll get a lot more help lighting your own long cigarette than you will when you finally decide it’s time to put that cigarette out. Hollywood is still taking money from tobacco companies for product placement of cigarette brands on the lips of admired stars. (Sly Stallone, a fitness role model of the 1980s, accepted $500,000 for such product placement in one of his movies, and the much-admired film In the Bedroom, recently released on video, is littered with shameless quasi-advertisements for Marlboros.) Tobacco farmers and companies are still subsidized by the government, and some of that money surely comes from the exorbitant tax on cigarettes, money wrested from people addicted, in part, because their government wanted them to be.

In 1964, nearly half of all Americans were smokers. They smoked everywhere—in movie theaters, in restaurants, in hospital waiting rooms and in college classrooms. Doctors even endorsed tobacco in advertisements. Now, of course, it’s more difficult to find places where smoking is accepted. At a bar not far from my house, I see smokers huddled outside the back entrance in all types of weather, servicing their habit between drinks. Such social pressure has caused the rate of smoking to decline. Only about 27 percent of Americans currently are smokers, and they are hounded and herded and hectored everywhere. Recent statistics, however, show an uptick in smoking among young people. That spike in smoking stats is thought to be attributable to pressure on young women to be thin as well as to images of smoking in films and advertising that still have the power to make it look cool to yet another generation.

My grandfather marched off to war, smoking and singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” As an unlettered Georgia boy, it’s unlikely he knew where Tipperary was or how long the way might be. And he certainly didn’t know, as he lit his own long cigarette, that he was also lighting mine.

The people at the American Indian casino also had their long cigarettes lit for them in the distant past. On movie screens, in advertising and in government subsidies paid out before they were born, their addictions were kindled. However, what was once fashionable (remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his jaunty cigarette holder?) and politically correct is now neither. And for that, more than anything else, they must pay.

After all, cigarettes are bad for the poor and harmful to their health. We’ll just price them out of their addictions, or, at the very least, we’ll force them to smoke less. It’s in their best interest. Meanwhile, they’ll help solve the state’s fiscal dilemma.

So, to all you poor people out there puffing away, just smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette—that long cigarette lit for you by a benign government long ago, a government you serve to this very day with each drag you take.