When my dad died from smoking cigarettes, we called his disease emphysema. The fact that it’s now called COPD – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – doesn’t make a bit of difference because the result is the same: a gargly, choking, gasping panic-filled death. My dad, Bill, also developed a cancerous chunk deep in his esophagus where the smoke hit him from so many Kents and Pall Malls and Carltons (Bill took up Carltons when the lying cigarette industry marketed them as safer).
When he breathed his last, I held him. Bill died way too young, leaving me behind at a moment in my life when I really needed him. Fast-forward a few years and I’m sitting in a concrete and steel interview room with a very nice criminal defendant, my client. She’s been addicted to methamphetamine and cocaine and heroin. And nicotine. She’s been able to break the heroin habit, but not the cigs. “The ciggiebutts are way harder to give up than the smack,” she told me. I found this fascinating, and so as the years went forward I made it a point to inquire of my drug-addicted clients: of the monkeys on your back, which is nastier? The outcome of my poll was more than consensus, it was unanimous: cigarettes are more addictive than heroin.
So my hippy-dippy Earth-loving peacenik friends and I grew up using a certain amount of pot, but cigarettes were not part of our lives. They were a part of the older generation’s lives that we rejected. We saw their illnesses, listened to their chunky wheezing, knew the smells of someone dying of cancer, grimaced at their orange-brown fingertips, teeth and lips, their drawn facial skin and dessicated, puckery lips.
As Paul and I grew out of our youth together and navigated through middle age and into what must now be called old age, none of the people we’ve hung out with have smoked. None. It’s horribly stinky to us, reeking from clothing and skin even when the actual butt isn’t burning. I guess we sort of thought cigarette use was an activity of the easily-bamboozled lower classes, the ill-educated people who gullibly allowed their limited funds to be sucked away by slick ciggie company marketing initiatives, contributing to a sad, self-stoking downward spiral of disease, poverty and ignorance.
Maybe that was once all true. But it is true no more. I just spent a few days at a Peace Corps conference with some of the brightest, well-educated twenty-somethings you’d ever have the good fortune to meet. They’re more than wise and filled with potential; I hang on what they say and ponder it later as I marvel at their sharp perceptions and ability to articulate abstract thought. They’re as far away from the mouth-breathing Deplorables who elected Trump as any human being could ever be. But many smoke like Deplorables. Why?
My Peace Corps friends intellectually recognize the guaranteed bad outcomes they are sowing for themselves, I’m sure. They loooove to say they love science when it comes to global climate change, but they’re silly magical thinkers when it comes to the proven science affecting their own bodies.
To stop their self-destruction, maybe they need the smells and sounds and textures of someone they love facing disease and death, like I had with Bill. So maybe it operates with sort of a generation-skipping dynamic.
Saddest of all, I think, would be if my friends’ self-destruction is driven by a nihilist acceptance that a world governed by an ape like Trump isn’t going to last long enough for the tars and nicotine to have their inevitable effect.