Forever, she'll be Mary, the girl who sat on her bathroom floor, a Misty Menthol Light 120 in her left hand, using the toilet as her ashtray.
She's tired. She's stressed. She's bored. She lights up. She wakes up. She lights up. She waits for the bus. She lights up. She gets off the Metro. She lights up. She takes a work break at 10:30. She lights up. She takes a lunch break. She lights up. She takes a 3 p.m. break. She lights up.
She lights up for every reason and no reason at all.
That was her life three months ago, the struggle of 27-year-old Tonya Guess -- the Mary behind the MaryQuits.com anti-smoking campaign -- as recorded over 28 days last summer, like an online reality show. She's like Mary J. Blige -- all that drama, all that crying -- only it's over smoking, not men. It's been chronicled, at a cost of $1.5 million, in ads at bus shelters and Metro stations, in radio commercials and film previews over the past month. Her face is inescapable, emblematic of the estimated 1 million smokers in the Washington area -- and nearly 46 million smokers in the country -- according to the D.C.-based American Legacy Foundation, the public health group that funded the campaign.
Guess attempted to quit three times. Tried the nicotine gums. Tried the pills. Tried the patches. Nothing worked.
"Most smokers don't realize that nicotine addiction is complex," says Chris Cullen, executive vice president for marketing and communications for the American Legacy Foundation. He, too, was a smoker -- Marlboro Reds, then Marlboro Lights. For 15 years. "So your plan to overcome the addiction needs to be equally complex. It's psychological. It's social. It's chemical. You have to address each one of those states or one of them is going to get you."
The foundation wanted to give smokers someone to go through this process with them. It found its star in Guess, who had been a smoker since 18, when she was a sophomore at Old Dominion University, averaging a pack a day. Never mind that she has asthma. Never mind that she got kicked out of her dorms. Smoking had become a necessity. When he was alive, her father, Larry, was a smoker; her mother, Rosa, is not.
"When I go out to eat, I want to smoke," says Guess. "When I go out to club, I want to smoke. How do you separate that?" She lives with her fiance, Andrae Boone, in a two-bedroom apartment in Germantown and works as an office manager in Dupont Circle. Early last June, while smoking her usual 3 p.m. cigarette outside the building, anxious about an upcoming meeting, a woman from the foundation approached her.
Why not be part of a reality program?
"I thought she was nuts," says Guess, sitting at her cubicle, between calls with her boss, who's in Boston. It's 3:15 p.m., and she's a little stressed out. By now, she would have been outside, a long, skinny Misty between her index and middle fingers.
The online cessation series is divided into four weeks. The first week is "prep week," the following three are "quit weeks." With each day comes a journal entry from Guess and a "Quit Tip of the Day." It's designed to help get quitters through the temptation and frustration they will inevitably face. On Day 1, early in the morning, while smoking on the balcony of her apartment, she writes, "It's all about the cigarette in the morning." She sees someone running. "I would like to be that person running." On Day 7, the last day of "prep week," after putting out her last cigarette, she says, "All I can say is that I wish I never started."
On Day 11, Day 13 and Day 17, she slips, taking puffs from cigarette butts and then smoking a full cigarette. She visits a physician on Day 4 ("You don't even think about lung cancer until you see it everywhere," she writes) and a dentist on Day 22 to get her teeth cleaned ("You are a classic example of someone who smokes, because you have that brown tongue," the dentist tells her). She joins a gym on Day 6. She tries (and hates) yoga on Day 19. She goes back to the gym.
On Day 28, in workout clothes, she says, "If I was still smoking, I would not be in the middle of D.C., on a rainy afternoon, at the gym, feeling good like this."
So far, MaryQuits.com gets 15,000 separate visitors a week -- including Yolanda Jenkins, who, at 27, has been smoking since she was 15.
Jenkins, of Gwynn Oak, Md., heard about the site on the radio while driving on I-70. "Then I saw the video clippings of her and saw how determined she was. It gave me something to think about." She posted her own story on MaryQuits.com, and is now down from seven Newport Lights a day to two.
Erica Thomas, 33 and a mother of two daughters, has given up her Newports. She never thought she would. She's the kind of smoker who walked the other way, took the next elevator, afraid that co-workers would know she smoked. Her cubicle is a few feet from Guess's. She checked out the site the first week of the campaign and saw herself while watching Day 2, the scene of Guess on the bathroom floor, alone, smoking.
Then and there, Thomas quit.