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Smoke Gets in Their Eyes

Palacio has a mix of typical smoker traits -- took first drag when as a teen, derives a sense of independence from smoking, triggered to smoke by external cues, ties smoking to other habits or behaviors, aware he should quit but unable to do so -- and the confounding should-know-better fact of working for an oncology publication. It's this complexity across the broad population of smokers that makes it hard to say just who "these people" are.

'I Have Plenty of Years Ahead'

Like many others, Steve Irvine of Gaithersburg fell into smoking when he was a teenager. He hated the taste. "I really don't know why I started," said Irvine, 26. "A lot of my friends did it. I wanted to be in the 'in' crowd. It was nasty at first, but I got used to it."

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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Ten years later, Irvine, whose job installing parking-garage systems keeps him on the road, said cigarettes don't "taste bad to me anymore." Even so, he said, he's tried to quit -- but found he couldn't. "I felt jittery if I got stressed out," when he wasn't smoking, he said. "I would be not the kind of person you'd want to be around."

"I'll be blunt with you," Irvine wrote in an e-mail. "If I had a better job that was not as stressful, I probably would quit. But as for now, I will continue to smoke."

The stress rationale doesn't move Seidenman. He advises would-be quitters who crave cigarettes under stress to make sure in advance there are none within easy reach.

Irvine noted that two of his grandparents -- both smokers -- recently were diagnosed with emphysema, and he wrote, "I know what can happen to me in the long run." But, he said, "I'm only 26. I have plenty of years ahead of me."

Maybe so. But in the March 9, 2002, British Medical Journal, Jarvis pointed out that "most smokers overestimate the likelihood of stopping in the future and greatly underestimate how long it is likely to take." While some 83 percent of current smokers in Jarvis's survey of 893 Britons said they wouldn't start smoking if they had it to do over again, the study revealed what Jarvis calls a "delusion gap": While 53 percent of those surveyed expected to stop smoking within two years, only 6 percent actually did so.

'I Thoroughly Enjoy It'

If Sue Goodman were to quit smoking today, she said, it wouldn't be for herself; it would be for her husband and dog. Her last dog died of lung cancer, she explained. "I'm a heavy smoker. I know that's what killed him."

Goodman doesn't wish the same fate on her 4-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Bo. But still she smokes -- as she's been doing, at the rate of two or more packs of More Menthol 120s a day, for 56 years (give or take a handful of periods when she tried to quit). That's about 817,600 cigarettes.

Research suggests that nearly all smokers take their first drags in their early teens. Goodman herself started at 14. "My girlfriend and I did it as a lark." At that age, she said, kids who smoked were "aping adults. I just kept it up."

(Not unusual, said Seidenman. "You can't tell a 13-year-old they'll get cancer when they're 55," he said. "They won't care.")

Goodman's long smoking history puts her at high risk of health problems ranging from heart disease to emphysema to any number of cancers.

But Goodman, who lives in Lanham, has so far dodged all bullets. "I thoroughly enjoy smoking, and am surprised I'm even alive after all this time," she wrote in an e-mail. "I have regular lung X-rays which don't show anything negative; do not have emphysema or any difficulty breathing; am a rather sedentary person who does little exercise except for housework and gardening."

Goodman believes she's both physically and psychologically addicted to smoking, not just to the nicotine, which she says gives her a slight buzz, but to her smoking routines. "You go to answer the phone, you smoke a cigarette. You eat, you smoke a cigarette. You work on the computer, you smoke a cigarette," she said. "I don't smoke when I'm taking a bath, though. It can be done; I just haven't done it."

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