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Smoke Gets in Their Eyes

Whether she took to it at the start, she can't recall. But now, Goodman said, "I don't remember ever not liking it."

'No One I Know Has a Problem'

New York computer programmer Bill Williams likes to cite people like Goodman as evidence that medical research linking smoking to poor health is bunk. The founder of the smokers' rights Web site www.smokinglobby.com, Williams said he made a conscious decision to start smoking 10 years ago, when he moved to the city after college. Cigarettes "smelled good," and smoking "seemed like a good thing to do," said Williams, 35.

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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"I grew up in a household where my dad smoked two packs a day." His dad, who quit when Williams was 15, remains healthy; Williams and his brother are healthy, too, despite all that secondhand smoke. "My girlfriend's parents still smoke, and they have no problems. They're in their eighties."

"I have known many smokers, and I haven't known anyone who had any health problem or death due to it," Williams said. What about all the research to the contrary? Williams is unimpressed. "Nobody's come up with definite proof" that smoking's bad for you, he said. "I don't think the studies are bulletproof right now."

Jarvis isn't surprised by Williams's way of thinking.

"Smokers can also have very rosy spectacles when it comes to judging adverse effects on their health. Older smokers particularly seem to misinterpret the fact that they are still alive and kicking as evidence that their health is not at risk from smoking," said the British researcher.

But Williams remains unconvinced. "If somebody did come forth with a study that did definitely prove [that smoking's bad for your health], I might reconsider. But nobody I know has had a problem."

Seidenman puts a different spin on Williams's rationale. "Okay, I'll tell you what," he said. "Let's meet down by the Washington Beltway with blindfolds on and cross the Beltway. Some of us will make it."

'People Rationalize Bad Habits'

Mary Sherman, 41, knows plenty of people who have had a problem. "My father died of cancer -- he smoked. My mom has emphysema -- she smoked." Sherman herself, who has been smoking since she was 17, is "in the process of quitting -- for the 150th time, it seems."

"I am otherwise a health nut," said Sherman, a paralegal who lives in Falls Church. "I eat organic foods, take supplements and vitamins, visit the doctor regularly, exercise. And yet, up until January, I continued to smoke a pack to a pack and a half a day. Why? Good question.

"The nicotine addiction is one part of it, but addiction to cigarettes is more complex than that," Sherman said. "It has something to do with feeling like you're getting away with something -- being the 'bad girl' yet still maintaining the 'good girl' façade."

Sherman started smoking as a teen, when the rest of her college-bound, academically and athletically successful peer group took up the habit. To her, the act of smoking telegraphed a message: "I'm tough, I'm bad, I can do what I want. I'm independent." Still, after a while, she grew to dislike it: "the way it looked, the smell, the expense." So she stopped -- until her husband, Sam, a nonsmoker, died of a heart attack in April 2003. The stress of that event "got me off on my last round of serious nonstop smoking," she said.

Sherman struggles to reconcile her firsthand knowledge of smoking's devastation with her desire to smoke. Some days, she said, "I look at it somewhat as overeating or drinking too much," she explained. "Why hasten a process that's inevitable? Why speed up your own demise?"

Other times she finds herself thinking, "The heck with it. I like smoking. I'm going to keep smoking." Even when her father died, she said, "in my smoker's mind, it wasn't lung cancer" that killed him. "It was not because of smoking."

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