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Smoke Gets in Their Eyes

Despite Overwhelming Evidence That Smoking Kills, 46 Million Still Do It. What Are They Thinking?

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page HE01

You see them huddled against the wind outside office buildings, cupping hands to protect tiny flames. You see them in their cars, faces blurred by clouds of smoke. You smell them when they're sitting next to you on the Metro. You hear them ask the salesclerk for a pack of Marlboro Lights, and you wonder: Who are these people?

By now, overwhelming evidence shows that smoking ravages your body, encourages fatal disease and shortens your life. And these facts are well publicized, indeed unavoidable: Well-funded anti-smoking campaigns have succeeded in painting the once-glamorized habit as dirty, smelly, costly and unsexy. Bans restrict smoking in all kinds of places where people used to light up.

Sue Goodman Smokes in Her Office
Sue Goodman Smokes in Her Office
Sue Goodman, 70, smokes in her Lanham, Md., home. She confines her smoking to one room in the house. (Andrea Bruce Woodall - The Washington Post)

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And yet 22.5 percent of U.S. adults -- 46 million Americans -- continue to smoke.

Why? We put the question to several smokers, particularly people you might expect to know better, interviewing them first via e-mail, then by phone; their comments here come from both sorts of contacts. We were not out to endorse their habit, or to preach (although we'd much rather be referring them to the Center for Tobacco Cessation at www.ctcinfo.org, a site funded by the American Cancer Society and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation). We just wanted to understand it better.

Some told us they smoke because they like the taste -- or because they know how dreadful it feels to quit. Others said they'd developed a universe of habits in which lighting up plays a key role. Many started smoking when they were teenagers playing grown-up. They keep smoking, they said, to reduce stress or boost productivity.

But when we asked experts on smoking behavior, we heard something else.

Martin Jarvis, professor emeritus of health psychology at University College London's department of epidemiology and public health, has spent 27 years trying to figure smokers out; he published his "Why People Smoke" in the Jan. 31, 2004, issue of the British Medical Journal. In Jarvis's view (shared by most of the medical world, including other researchers interviewed for this story), the question can be answered in one word: addiction.

"People's accounts of why they smoke are interesting, but not necessarily reliable," Jarvis writes. "You have to bear in mind that what we're talking about here is drug use, and people may not have accurate insight into how nicotine influences their behavior. So always take [their stories] with a large pinch of salt."

Sig Seidenman, a former Air Force pilot and ex-smoker who runs Stop Smoking Clinics at businesses and hospitals in the Baltimore/Washington area, agrees. People's stories, said Seidenman, who has more than 20 years' experience helping people quit, "are all just rationalizations. [They're] excuses people tell themselves so they don't have to face the stress and strain of quitting. Because they're afraid."

That said, here are their accounts:

'I Smoked Because I Could'

Twenty-eight-year-old Mark Palacio dabbled in smoking as a teenager but didn't take up the habit in earnest until his senior-year college roommate moved out, leaving Palacio with a room of his own. He relished the rush of independence: "I smoked because I could," he said. That was six years ago. He's puffed regularly ever since.

"What's worst," he said, "I write for a medical trade magazine for radiology and cancer care. I smoke because I feel like I have no reason not to. I figure that at a pack a day [of Marlboro menthols] like I'm smoking now, I can go until I'm about 30 before I should seriously consider quitting -- again."

Palacio, who lives in Philadelphia, doesn't hang out with smokers or look for validation in ads. "I never thought there was anything special about the Marlboro Man," he says. He has quit a couple of times -- each time resuming the habit, once after a death in the family made him crave "that emotional boost" that smoking offered, another time after a movie planted the idea.

And then there's alcohol. "Drinking makes it difficult" not to smoke, Palacio said. "A glass of scotch and a cigarette . . . I really like that taste. It's so memorable. When I quit [smoking] and then have a scotch, it tastes hollow. It's only half the taste."

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