Cover Story: Why We Smoke

Loving it to death, despite knowing better

Sean Hughes

The Joy of Smoking

Smoking cigarettes feels good. But no one is supposed to say so. We know a lot about the science of smoking and the habits of smokers. Tobacco might be the most thoroughly studied plant in the world, meticulously quantified in numerous surveys by universities, public health agencies and manufacturers.

But it can be useful to occasionally say what everyone secretly knows but may not be spoken aloud in TV commercials or radio ads and is not to be conveyed to children or other vulnerable persons. We ought to know what's behind a phenomenon that's been so popular for so many centuries in so many parts of the world — especially if we're set on demonizing it.

Forty-six million Americans smoke, according to a 2004 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics. This is in spite of the fact that smoking causes deadly illness, stinks and, in the not too distant future, will be banned everywhere except in private homes — unless children are present, in which case smokers will face prosecution for child endangering.

(For an update on the status of Ohio's smoking ban, see "Move Along" on page 26.)

Smoking cigarettes feels good after a meal, in place of a meal, while drinking, while attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, while driving, during a stroll, after sex, after an argument, right before bed, first thing in the morning and during work breaks.

It feels good to smoke alone; a sense of individuality can emerge, and unexpected opportunities for reflection pop up. It feels good to smoke with others; widespread condemnation of the habit causes a sense of camaraderie among those who smoke anyway.

Smoking indoors is a rare luxury, most often experienced in the southern states and in the homes of the exceptionally tolerant. Being forced to smoke outdoors enhances the natural flavor of forbidden fruit.

Criminalizing cigarettes
Warning: Anti-smoking campaigns could be turning your little darlings into thieves. One of the benefits of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the federal government, state governments, schools, health organizations and charities to study smoking is that we also get glimpses of some unintended — but consequential — outcomes.

Thus we know, for example, that last year only 17 percent of smoking high school students in Ohio bought their cigarettes from stores. That's half the number that bought them from stores in 2000, according to the 2006 Ohio Youth Tobacco Survey, conducted by the Ohio Department of Health.

That must at first seem good news for people concerned about the very real health dangers that smoking carries for kids: Fewer stores are selling cigarettes to minors.

But left unremarked in the survey is a curious bit of data about the smallest "point of access" by which high school students get cigarettes. In 2000, only 2.2 percent of smoking teens in Ohio said they got their cigarettes by stealing them. Six years later — after continual anti-smoking propaganda in schools, on TV and throughout the Internet and after ever stricter legislation to punish youth smoking — the number of thieving teen smokers has more than doubled. Last year 5.5 percent of smoking high school students told the health department that they stole their smokes.

The consequence might be unintended, but it's also inevitable. If you close off legal access to a popular product — across the country, it's illegal for anyone younger than 18 to buy tobacco — illegal access will increase in frequency.

If the product is popular enough — and 46 million customers certainly qualifies — ordinarily law-abiding citizens will casually break the law. We see it happen every Fourth of July in conservative and otherwise respectable neighborhoods: Firecrackers, bottle rockets and Roman candles are so omnipresent in the suburban sky that police make no pretense about meaningful enforcement of the laws against them.

The same happens with cigarettes, as the Youth Tobacco Survey points out, citing a source likely to get heads wagging all through the parenting class. Not only has stealing become more common as a way for kids to get cigarettes, but to the consternation of the health department so has another officially pernicious practice: adults giving cigarettes to minors.

This, too, is a crime. Yet last year 32 percent of smoking high school kids in the state got their cigarettes when, they said, "An adult gave them to me." Free cigarettes are now the leading source for teen smokers, according to the survey.

But the most curious source, and the second largest, is one that's stayed steady at about 22 percent for the past six years: "Borrowed them." No further explanation is provided, suggesting areas for further research.

Do teens borrow the cigarettes more often from their friends or from adults? Do any teens borrow cigarettes from stores? What is the economic impact of teen cigarette borrowing, and are there tax implications? Does repayment always follow, and what form does it take? Is repayment with a cigarette of a different brand acceptable? At what point does borrowing cigarettes become offensive? Does cigarette borrowing diminish with the onset of adulthood? Is it not a sign of adulthood that one quits borrowing cigarettes and starts buying his or her own?

Boundary jumping
Almost everyone agrees that smoking is destructive to a person's health. So why do so many people smoke anyway?

Craig Spies of Cincinnati has been smoking for 10 years.

"I'm a late bloomer," he says. "I didn't start smoking 'til I was 37. I started because of a girl I was seeing. She was smoking in a bar and I said, 'Oh, that looks good.' That's how I got hooked."

He has no illusions.

"It's weird for me," Spies says. "My father and my mother both died of cancer. So did my sister. Sure, I think about it."

Why does he smoke?

"For me, it's a calming thing," he says. "There's nothing better than that first smoke after a meal."

Chuck Covelle of Eastgate has had far more experience; he's smoked for 40 years.

"I enjoy it," he says. "I think I'd go crazy if I didn't smoke. I drive for a living. It just keeps me awake so I'm paying attention all the time."

A recent Tuesday afternoon found Spies, Covelle and me — all of whom live in Ohio — shopping at the Smilin' Smoker Tobacco Outlet in Covington. The store offers national brands at less than $30 a carton and perfectly serviceable off-brand cigarettes for less than $20. It even has a drive-thru window.

It's the first exit off the Brent Spence Bridge into Kentucky. A mile north in downtown Cincinnati, you'll pay $40 for a carton.

"I only buy cigarettes in Ohio when I have to," Covelle says.

So do I. So do thousands of other Ohioans within reach of Northern Kentucky, whose lower cigarette taxes justify the cost in gasoline — and legal risk. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland recently made noise about cracking down on untaxed out-of-state cigarettes and liquor (also refreshingly cheap in Northern Kentucky).

It's been tried before. In the 1980s the legendary Harold Mills, commander of the Cincinnati Police Vice Unit, used a helicopter to catch Ohioans dashing across the river for cheap cigarettes and booze. When an unwitting "smuggler" returned home to the Buckeye State, police would arrest him, seizing both the contraband and the car used to haul it across state lines.

But still we break the law in order to get cheap cigarettes. If they were banned outright, we'd go to dark corners and look over our shoulders while buying them from strangers. The reason is that it feels good to smoke them.

Science explains.

"Nicotine satiates the pleasure center of our brain," says Professor Lawrence M. Anthony, director of Addiction Studies at the University of Cincinnati.

The brain quickly learns to like it. So does the mind.

"There is such a biochemical response to what we do when we smoke cigarettes and when we smoke marijuana that it's often hard to separate the purely psychological from what's both psychological and physical addiction," Anthony says. "One of the things we say when we are addicted to drugs, addicted to eating or addicted to gambling is that those things are the medium but we are addicted to the biochemical response."

In other words, we know from science that smoking cigarettes feels good.

"It meets a need," Anthony says. "Many people smoke the way they engage in other activities — as a stress reliever."

Smoking yields almost instant satisfaction.

"Absorption of cigarette smoke from the lung is rapid and complete, producing with each inhalation a high concentration ... of nicotine that reaches the brain within 10-16 seconds, faster than by intravenous injection," according to ABC of Smoking Cessation: Why People Smoke, by epidemiologist Martin J. Jarvis.

The fascist influence
Properly understood, this is quite a tool: a stress reliever that starts working in 16 seconds. Right after the baby is born. Right after getting fired. Right before getting locked up.

Well, it used to be that way. In 1982 the Hamilton County Courthouse still had ashtrays in the hallways. Just before a hearing that I knew would put me in jail — it was a disagreement with Simon Leis Jr., who was then county prosecutor — I bummed a cigarette from Hal Metzger, a grizzled old police-beat reporter for The Cincinnati Post. He knew I was going to jail, too — and after I lit the cigarette he'd given me he placed the rest of the pack in my shirt pocket.

I emulated his example when I found myself in the old Cincinnati Workhouse. Within hours I'd learned that some of the rumors about this circa 1865 dungeon were true: We really did get a Folgers can in our cells to use as a toilet. But it was another kind of rumor about jail that was on my mind when a very large prisoner saw me smoking and came toward me.

"Can I have your shorts?" he said, and I knew in that instant I was about to become this man's bitch, his love slave. He wanted my shorts, and he wanted them off.

I stalled for time.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

What he wanted had nothing to do with underwear; an altogether different kind of butt was on his mind. What he wanted was the little bit of tobacco left in my pile of cigarette butts which, when put together, could make a decent hand-rolled smoke. I gave him one of Metzger's cigarettes — and all my shorts.

It was in the Workhouse that I had my first hand-rolled cigarette. The commissary sold sacks of Bugler for 69 cents. But that was a more merciful era, when prisoners could smoke while serving their time.

Twenty-five years later Leis remains in power, but now he's the county sheriff and he won't let his captives have a cigarette.

Is it unfair to mention at this point that Adolf Hitler hated smoking and launched an aggressive anti-smoking campaign?

Sometimes anti-smoking literature has the inane effect of glamorizing tobacco. Cancer Research UK ( is a British non-profit organization whose Web page gives a litany of reasons for smoking. The group says smokers might:

· "use smoking as a support for when things go wrong,

· enjoy smoking with others as a shared activity,

· use smoking to start conversations and meet new people,

· smoke to make themselves look more confident and in control,

· think that cigarettes help them to keep their weight down,

· have a cigarette when they're feeling bored or lonely,

· smoke when they need a break or a moment to themselves."

All of which are very good reasons to smoke cigarettes.

Pretty poison
It hadn't occurred to me that there's such a thing as a smoking fetish. But of course there is.

The cutlines accompanying film stills on drip with tobacco-scented lust.

"A. Judd has one VERY lengthy nose/mouth exhale. The beauty in it (is) that she is supposed to be a non-smoker. K. Capshaw has several wonderful, mature style, VERY thick exhales. Very nice."

(Read more about how people respond to celebrity-driven cigarette use in "Smoking Hot" on page 27.)

Still, pleasurable though it becomes with repeated use, smoking is a painstakingly acquired taste.

"Ironically, somebody who starts smoking needs to persevere in order to become addicted," Anthony says. "The first experience people have with nicotine, because of its toxicity, is not pleasant. It's comparable to the first cup of coffee. Because of the bitterness, people may load it down with sugar. After the first few times you do it, your body adjusts to the nicotine level."

Becoming a smoker requires a few bouts of dizziness, nausea and coughing. Tobacco is literally intoxicating — that is, a way of ingesting a poisonous substance.

In the course of a lifetime, we ingest a lot of poison — alcohol, air pollution, gasoline fumes, mercury in fish. Smoking is sometimes described as the only legal product which, when used as intended, causes death.

It's untrue, of course; the same sometimes happens with chemotherapy. But the myth points to an inescapable reality: Smoking can kill.

Fortunately, it takes a long time.

"Most of the consequences of smoking are distal consequences," Anthony says.

Smokers enjoy cigarettes so much that we gamble on our very longevity. I bet I can smoke and still live long enough that, when I die, I won't be too young and I won't feel cheated.

My original goal was to make it until my kids were all adults. I didn't want to leave orphans behind. I made it. The way I see it, that makes all the years ahead a free-smoking zone.

Will it kill me? Probably. But smoking cigarettes feels good.

It's not dissimilar to other kinds of physical risk-taking that are commonly accepted but far more acutely dangerous: parachuting, auto racing, joining the Marines. People who participate in those foolhardy ventures bet that they can get a thrill and live to talk about it afterwards.

In that sense, smoking cigarettes is far safer: No Marines have lived to serve 40 years of occupation duty in Iraq. Not yet anyway. ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.