Owning Up to The Smoking Gum

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

Chew 'em if you got 'em, Mr. Obama.

Everybody wants to guilt-trip the president-elect for smoking cigarettes, but nobody so far has tried to shame him off Nicorette gum. For this I am grateful: Somebody has to hold the line for a man's God-given right to partake in the pleasures of Cinnamon Surge, Fruit Chill and the new White Ice Mint variety of the popular GlaxoSmithKline product.

I speak from 20 years of experience with nicotine-laced chewing gums, dating to the days in the mid-1980s when only doctors could prescribe them.

I was never a continuous chewer; indeed, the makers of Nicorette and its knockoffs caution users about dependency, saying they should chew for no more than 12 weeks, gradually reducing the dose to wean themselves off nicotine. But for many recovering smokers it doesn't quite work that way. We are imperfect beings, subject to dark cravings. That may be why Barack Obama, by his own admission, keeps falling off the wagon and reaching for coffin nails or demon gum to steady his nerves.

Once I was powerless over cigarettes; later I became powerless over Nicorette. Once I patted my shirt pocket to find the comforting outline of a hard pack. Later I would find myself fumbling for the small, sharp-edged plastic squares containing a welcome fix from my old drug buddy Nick O'Teen.

I suspect that an untold number of chewers have become addicted. I have no evidence that our incoming president might be among them (a spokeswoman didn't return a request for comment; better things to do), but reports indicate that he has passed the three-month acceptable chew zone.

Obama said in February 2007 that he had quit smoking at his wife's urging and that he was chewing Nicorette. During the long campaign he didn't hide his gum use. One reporter recalls that the candidate chewed it more or less every day for well over a year. (But that's nothing: One large federally funded study found that 19 percent of current and former smokers were still chewing after five years -- with no evident ill effects.)

The benefit of the gum is obvious: It doesn't cause cancer or the ignition of your necktie. The drawback is obvious, too: You're still hooked on nicotine.

Asked about smoking in an interview in Men's Health published in November 2008, Obama said he occasionally "bummed one" -- a mooching technique well known to would-be quitters who can't bring themselves to buy a pack of cigs but happily end up smoking half of yours during a good bender. (Unfortunately, this bender can occur nowadays only in the yard.)

Anti-smoking activists are ratcheting up the pressure on Obama not to relapse. Various newspapers have editorialized that he should quit: They want to turn him into a national role model for willpower and health. Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, which campaigns to prevent youth smoking, agrees: "The president-elect is in a position to help people understand that it's difficult to quit and to encourage the 43 million adult Americans who smoke to join him in his efforts."

As if the man doesn't have enough on his plate, what with two wars, a global economic collapse and the looming specter of paper-training a puppy in the White House.

Obama had to sheepishly address his cigarette use in two post-election network interviews: Barbara Walters and Tom Brokaw both pointed the smoking gun at the president-elect. Brokaw practically made him promise he won't light up in the White House, which has been a no-smoking zone since the dawn of the Clinton era.

To which I say: Isn't a man's home his castle?

Answer: Not if he's married.

"Michelle is a pretty good policewoman when it comes to this," Obama told Walters on "20/20." It was Michelle, after all, who put pressure on him to quit in the first place. He also noted the obvious: "When Momma's happy, everybody's happy."

At some point, I expect a backlash against Obama for being a gum man, just as we've seen tobacco dippers, pipe puffers and cigar smokers stigmatized. We'd put the snuff inhalers in the public stocks, too, except they died off around the time when there were public stocks.

There's already a financial price to be paid for chewing Nicorette, and I don't only mean the $50 cost of a box containing 100 pieces. On life insurance forms these days you are not only asked about smoking but whether you've ever used "nicotine replacement products," so the insurer can catapult offenders into a higher premium class. Essentially you are still classed as a smoker if you've used such products in the past year.

After an underwriter found my doctor's mention of Nicorette in my medical records (Obama's doctor cited it, too), the insurance agent quoted me a rate of $600 a month. "Is this what you get for quitting smoking?" I railed. "I guess you'd punish Senator Obama for trying to quit, too."

I withdrew my request for the policy -- so there -- and found a more enlightened company.

Doctors endorse nicotine gum as a solution for smoking, up to a point. "It's a start toward stopping, but you need to set goals and not substitute one form of addiction for another," says my cardiologist, Barry Talesnick of Chevy Chase. "You shouldn't chew more than 30 pieces a day, and you clearly shouldn't continue to smoke when you use it."

The side effects most frequently cited are rapid or irregular heartbeat, nausea or dizziness and jaw or mouth problems. And there is concern about nicotine's long-term impact, including higher blood pressure and damage to the arteries.

Beware, too, of the image you may project. "You look like a Valley Girl, chewing away all the time," says author Tony Horwitz, who quit Nicorette last summer after "four or five years" of addiction. "Of course, I haven't written a good sentence since," he laments. "What can you say? It's a stimulant. It's pretty clear it sharpens your thinking or creates the illusion that you're thinking sharply."

Just as men find ways to make smoking seem industrious (hello, I'm a miniature factory with my very own smokestack), they can try to make chewing look manly, too. Obama was seen chomping purposefully, as if it were part of the hard work of winning the presidency. And he didn't even have to scratch himself and spit in the dugout every five minutes.

Our next president doesn't know how lucky he is to have nicotine gum options an earlier generation did not enjoy. In the 1980s, the prescription gum tasted like a combination of sandpaper and half-cured tile caulk, and delivered a zesty, burnt-match mouthfeel. No matter: I risked violations of federal law to cadge friends into filling prescriptions so I could score more G.

Eventually, I moved on by replacing the bitter-tasting squares with regular gum, which thankfully coincided with the rise of more-robust choices (such a Dentyne cinnamon) that make your mouth feel like it's working for a sideshow fire-eater. GlaxoSmithKline, in its Nicorette-user guide, actually suggests that cinnamon gum be put in an "emergency kit" after you get off the gum.

I was able to go nicotine-free for many years, but not forever. Five years ago I suffered a smoking relapse overseas -- did you know they have ashtrays in hotel elevators in Baghdad? -- and once again turned to the crutch. The new Nicorette was much easier to handle, reformulated with crunchy, flavorful coatings and leaving only a mild tingle. I suspect that the health of America wasn't the only reason for such ingenious improvements. If the gum actually tastes good, focuses your mind and won't lead to a hideous early demise, why quit chewing after 12 weeks? Or ever?

In his autobiography, Obama writes freely of smoking in his youth and into his 20s. But talking to Men's Health magazine, he made it seem like quitting was pretty easy: "I was never really a heavy smoker. Probably at my peak I was smoking seven or eight a day. More typical was three. So it wasn't a huge challenge with huge withdrawal symptoms."

I wish him luck with Nicorette. One thing is for sure: It's better than trying to sneak out for a smoke on the South Lawn. That's a sure way for a man to get acquainted with his dog's lodgings, even if he doesn't have the dog yet.

Comments: leibyr@washpost.com.

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