The Last Puff

By John W. Farquhar and Gene A. Spiller

(W.W. Norton & Co., New York) 252 pp.; $18.95

My late mother-in-law used to leave a Reader's Digest open, face down, on the ivory lace on one of her walnut veneer tables when my wife and I visited. The first time, I picked it up and began reading. It was a graphic account of the surgical removal of a smoker's lung, one of those ugly scare pieces the Reader's Digest was so good at as it strove, in the 1950s, to set the moral, social, political and health agenda for middle America. As I was about halfway through the piece I noticed the date on the magazine, and it not only wasn't current, it was more than a year old.

The same magazine appeared each time I visited, always open to the same spot, but I never fell for it again, and continued to smoke for another quarter of a century, noting with some smugness that along the way I had managed to outlive her.

So here comes John Farquhar, a physician, and Gene Spiller, who has a doctorate in nutrition, both specialists in preventive medicine, with what might easily have been one more in a long line of nagging books, articles and multimedia harangues on the evils of smoking. Instead, it manages to be a valuable little book with something for everyone.

Everyone, that is, with an interest in quitting smoking.

The two have compiled the self-told stories of 30 men and women who in one way or another managed to divest themselves of a noxious and dangerous addiction. The stories, two to five pages each, chronicle the role of smoking in their lives, generally not much different than our own, with a few notable exceptions.

The exceptions are a delight to encounter: The story of David Goerlitz, who for six years was the Winston Man, the model who represented Winston cigarettes in newspaper and magazine ads and who smoked three packs a day and gave that up along with his $75,000 a year in modeling fees.

"What stopped me," he wrote, "was seeing kids 12 and 13 buying cigarettes and lighting up, and the fear that I might have influenced them to smoke. What stopped me was the realization that the tobacco industry commits murder, and I have been an accessory for six years."

Another interesting and unusual story is that of Patrick Reynolds, grandson of the founder of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., who tells us that his grandfather, R.J. Reynolds, chewed tobacco and died of cancer of the pancreas and that his father smoked heavily and died at 58 after years of emphysema, as did his father's sister. Patrick Reynolds smoked for 17 years, and in attempting to quit tried Smokenders, acupuncture, cold turkey and something called the Schick negative reinforcement method of direct punishment. He finally quit on his own, in the process working out, with a psychologist, the Reynolds Stop Smoking Program, into which he has pumped a lot of his inheritance.

Co-author Farquhar tells his own story of addiction and quitting, in his mid-thirties. For the most part, the stories are of ordinary people's battles with the weed, although actress Celeste Holm's story is included. Some are more successful than others. But all share essentially the same element: at some point in their lives they made a decision to quit smoking, and their ability to do that began to coalesce around that decision, in some cases gradually, and in some cases suddenly and almost spontaneously. The stories echo the personal conversations about alcoholism in Dennis Wholey's "The Courage to Change," a bestseller of the mid '80s, and were inspired by the "drunkalogues" of Alcoholics Anonymous groups, in which 40 or so recovered alcoholics tell their stories.

The book deals briefly with the nature of nicotine addiction, and has some good answers to frequently asked questions about weight gain, stress and emotional change.

This is a book you can put on your coffee table for your son-in-law with love and without fear of antagonism.