Are you people out there who are still smoking crazy? Coming from an ex-smoker, that sounds smug, I know. Actually, it was relatively easy for me to stop smoking cigarettes, and fortunately, I never developed the pain and pang some ex-smokers experience.
According to former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano, "Smoking is slow motion suicide by nicotine addiction." The key is that people have to be willing to surrender the addiction.
A friend reminded me how complicated this addiction to nicotine is.
This friend still haunts antique stores looking for a combination Ronson cigarette lighter and case, preferably in black enamel with a little purple orchid on it, to replace the one given to her by her parents at her "sweet 16" party to celebrate the rites of passage into adulthood.
She hasn't smoked for two years, but the sweet memories of peer approval, being accepted as an adult, smoking Marlboro beauty-tipped cigarettes and pseudo-sophistication are still sweet in her mind. She finds that nonsmokers' aversion to smoke and to smokers is misguided and at worst, nonproductive and even controlling.
Throughout this country, especially among low-income black teens, smoking is still a rite of passage that apparently is more important than the long-term health consequences that few teens believe they will ever suffer.
And yet those of us who know that teen-age smokers will suffer long-term health consequences -- health experts, journalists, social workers, parents -- have a responsibility to find a way to take the glitter off smoking so that teen-age smokers and adult smokers will be more willing to surrender the addiction.
I include in that number black leaders who have hidden behind the idea of civil rights priorities as a way of not dealing with subjects like smoking that may seem arcane at first blush but really are a matter of life and death.
The consequences have been well documented -- statistically in the District alone, black men are at the greatest risk of dying from cancer and have excessively high rates of lung cancer.
There are many avenues open to those willing to surrender this addiction. Other than cold turkey, there are a number of programs and workshops -- both free and paid -- offered by city agencies and the American Lung Association. Moreover, major local institutions, including Howard University Hospital and the D.C. Public Health Commission, have set out to learn just why Washington is the cancer capital of the country and what can be done to reduce the cancer rates. All this is designed to prompt people who are engaged in this self-destructive behavior to want to give it up.
One thing that has to be done is to take the glamor out of smoking. Those billboards and advertisements with healthy models flashing gleaming teeth do a hell of a selling job to teen-agers and preteen-agers. We have to make it more glamorous not to smoke. The peer pressure has to be turned around so that smokers, instead of being thought of as cool, are thought of as nerds.
As a society, we have succeeded in pushing smokers out of the parlors and back into the bathrooms that they sneaked into as teens. But society does have a vested interest because of the health cost in lives that are lost and money that is spent on this legal and heavily advertised mode of self-destruction.
Some new ways are needed to understand and deal with the problem. I like the posters that ask parents who smoke what kind of role model they are providing for their children. But some smokers can't quit; others won't quit. It's a mental health and physical health problem.
In 1985, 23 million people participated in the Great American Smokeout and 7 million made it through the day without a cigarette, according to the sponsoring American Cancer Society. In 1981 the society did a follow-up study on 1980 participants in which 5 million made it through a day without smoking. A year later, 1 million of them were still off the weed.
To the unknown percentage who after Thursday's Great American Smokeout will no longer be cigarette addicts, congratulations. Remember, you're the lucky ones, and help the next smoker through the door with you.