Failure is your best option.
“Oh my God, YOU smoke?”
“You don’t look like you smoke.”
One of the weirdest things that kept happening to me when I was younger was strangers refusing to believe I was a smoker. Maybe I looked like a Boy Scout, or put off some Mama’s Boy vibe, or looked like your central casting-style ‘Nice Guy.” Someone for whom smoking was a big no-no. Or maybe I just didn’t look cool enough to smoke. I don’t know. But whenever I’d start working a new job, or meet new people, the moment I revealed I enjoyed sampling cancer sticks now and again, the reaction was often shocking. As if I’d revealed I was in the mob or something.
But smoke I did from ages 16 to 25. I started sometime in the spring of 1998, experimenting by myself under a bridge by a bubbling stream near my house with a good ol’ pack of Marlboro Reds. I was working at a popular chain resort as a waiter at the time, and there was a cigarette machine tucked in an alcove near the front desk. Remember those machines with the little plastic knobs with the glass display? They reminded me of foosball tables because you had to pull the knob outward underneath your selection. Like an arcade game that gives you emphysema. They also don’t check your I.D., which was a nice plus.
Almost everyone I worked with smoked. I was the youngest there. The others were mainly stressed-out college students who chain-smoked like chimneys. I never encountered any of the dreaded peer pressure those corny school special PSAs warn you about, to start inhaling chemical-laden smoke into my lungs, but I suppose unconsciously, I was trying to fit in.
So one day, I took a walk and found myself under that bridge. I can still remember unwrapping the plastic shrink wrap. Cracking open the little box. Inhaling the sweet smell of fresh Marlboro tobacco. Then with a shrug, lighting up my first one. It was warm and sunny, and the stream was peaceful. It was the idyllic spot to have your first cigarette. And that’s where my smoking career started.
Eventually, I would quit on December 29th, 2007, tossing my final drag out my car window as I drove on the Schuylkill Expressway through the heart of Philadelphia. Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like my last. I had some vague notion of quitting for good. I’d tried to a dozen different times in the past. There was no big dramatic determination that this time would be the one. Then two days later, during a rooftop New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house in the city, I decided to test my resolve. If I could resist the urge to smoke after New Year’s, maybe this time would be the one.
As it turned out, all those years of failure had prepared me well because I was able to overcome the craving to light up in celebration. Perhaps it was succeeding at this early mental test that gave me the confidence to go forward. I never smoked cigarettes again. In fact, except on very rare occasions, I never even get haunted by the Ghost of Tobacco Cravings. There was one time I dreamt I smoked and woke up flush with guilt, only to realize I hadn’t actually lit up for real. I enjoy a cigar once in a while. But those have never tempted me back into a habitual smoking habit.
My relationship with tobacco was awkward, kind of pleasant, and also masochistic. Like dating someone who you know doesn’t really like you, but you keep pressing on with them because to break up would make you feel lonely, and hey, maybe they’ll change their mind and eventually like you someday. Yeah, I’ve never done that before.
:::sad slide whistle:::
Smoking was never something I felt really driven to do. I’d started due to some fatalistic thinking that this was just one of those things you tried, combined with a desire for acceptance and some nebulous notion of thinking it would help me “fit in.” Stupid rationales, for sure. But at least I wasn’t injecting heroin into my veins.
It feels weird to think about now, but smoking was far more socially and institutionally acceptable back then. Most restaurants had a Smoking and Non-Smoking section. Workplaces often allow smoking indoors. I worked at a printing company for four years where almost everyone smoked, and inside, too. Then sometime around 2002 or so, the company said we had to take smoke breaks outside. I had several family members who smoked. Even being underage didn’t stop me the most time. I could always find a classmate who either worked at a store that sold cigarettes or a co-worker willing to buy cigarettes for me if I asked.
Oh, and cigs were cheap back then, too. This was before the government began taxing the hell out of them. I think I used to pay around $1.20-$1.70 or so for premium brands like Marlboro. You can’t find them that cheap now unless you go to some war-torn Third World country where kids wear flips flops and carry Uzis around on their shoulders. Probably not worth it to visit just to get discount mini-stogies.
E-commerce was but a dribbling cyber infant at that time, too. In one of those uniquely adolescent genius moments, I found an online company that sold loose tobacco. Using my junior debit card, I ordered a whole freaking pound of Virginia tobacco. While I couldn’t buy cigarettes under 18, I could buy paraphernalia like rolling papers at the local gas station. I even ordered a hand roller online, too.
After everything arrived, I sat my 17-year-old self on the sofa rolling my own cigarettes, watching Third Rock from the Sun, feeling like a genius because I’d outmaneuvered the ban on selling tobacco to minors.
My high school only reinforced the need to smoke. At the high school, I went to for my senior year, there was a section called The Row that bordered the street and the school property, where all the smokers went to light up. It was just too easy to step off the school bus and stroll on over. Or use one of my many free periods to dip out and satisfy my cravings.
During my brief time in foster care, I even mastered the art of dipping tobacco while smoking for the ultimate morning head rush. Dipping tobacco was never really my thing, though. It was something I tried more because my foster brothers were into it. To this day, the scent of mint dipping tobacco brings me right back to my late teen years, state-mandated counseling sessions, waiting outside at the bus stop, occasional fist fights, and tromping through backyards to get to friends’ houses and such. Not to mention those disgusting spit containers. Usually, soda bottles. Dark brown saliva sloshed around the bottom of those ridges. Gross.
I came to disdain dipping and chewing tobacco as low-class. But smoking remained cool. I moved on from Marlboros. Briefly dabbled with Camels, a brand one of my cousins smoked, but which I found too “acidy.” Tried Newports but never cared for menthol. Then Parliaments, with the classy recessed filter. Until finally discovering the brand for me, Lucky Strikes.
Whenever I have one of those once-in-a-blue-moon moments where I feel a craving, it’s Lucky Strikes that I think about. The filtered kind. Never anything else. Made popular during WWII. All cigs all loaded with bad chemicals. But for whatever reason, the chemical composition of Lucky Strikes just did it for me. It was a niche brand, too. I have not sold everywhere like the big brands. No one else I knew smoked them. Which made them feel more special and unique.
I’ll never smoke again. But if Putin were to go nuts and launch the nukes, and the apocalypse was imminently upon us, you can bet I’d be scouring every gas station and store for Lucky Strikes, just so I could light up and enjoy that final dry toasted drag as the mushroom cloud vaporized me into dust.
It wasn’t quitting smoking that was tough. It was quitting Lucky Strike cigarettes that were tough. Even now, whenever I see one of those little white boxes with the red circle in the tobacco section behind the cashier, the song True by Spandau Ballet starts playing in my head.
Yeah, you could say I kinda liked that brand.
So, how’d I eventually quit smoking altogether? By failing a bunch of times first. It helped that, except for a brief summer in 2000, I was never much of a heavy smoker. Even though cigs were relatively cheap back then, for me at the time, with my $10-an-hour part-time job, they were a pricey luxury. So I mainly only smoked upwards of half a pack a day at most, with dry periods tossed in-between paychecks.
I encountered my first success at quitting, oddly enough, after having my wisdom teeth pulled in late 2001. All four of my teeth were impacted, so the dentist had to get in there pretty invasively with his mini jackhammer and yank them all out. I was conscious of the operation but obviously quite doped up. I couldn’t eat or drink much following the surgery. Obviously, I couldn’t smoke. But being forced to quit cold turkey like that isn’t what got me over the hump to cut down smoking going forward.
It was the Vicodin. I was only prescribed a week’s worth following the extractions. But for whatever reason, the drug, combined with the fact that my mouth felt like a gaping wound from a horror movie, put me off my regular smoking schedule for good. I never went back to smoking half a pack a day. From then on, it was 5–7 cigarettes a day, to only about 2–3. One with my morning Dunkin’ Donuts medium coffee. One after lunch. Then one, maybe two, after dinner. And that was it.
Later, after getting more serious about quitting, I tried the “filthy ashtray” technique. That’s where you leave a disgusting, smelly ashtray filled with old wet cigarette stubs in your car, so you associate smoking with a foul odor. This is supposed to help you quit. Well, it’s a terrible method. I don’t recommend it. It didn’t help me except to look for other tips and tricks to overcome the habit.
I tried nicotine patches, only to get some of the most bizarre and disturbing nightmares while using them. The feeling of my skin slowly absorbing nicotine all day was also off-putting and made me sick. Besides, it wasn’t so much the nicotine I craved. It was sucking down that warm smoke with the taste of fresh coffee on my tongue and getting that morning head rush. Or enjoying that post-lunch drag after having abstained all morning. And that final cigarette before sleep.
Sometimes compromise can keep you trapped. I felt that because I was only smoking 2–3 a day, that was good enough. That surely wasn’t enough to cause cancer, right? I was in good health otherwise. I worked out, stayed active, and had a good diet. Hey, I can smoke a few a day if I want.
It just came down to making the decision to quit and sticking to it. No magic trick, big secret, or anything. I don’t know what made me finally decide enough was enough. Maybe it was getting mid-way through my twenties and wanting to leave smoking behind as a bad habit leftover from youth. Maybe it was wanting to save money. By the mid-2000s, cigarette prices were starting to go parabolic. They were three dollars. Then four. It started to actually eat into my earnings, even at only a pack and a half a week.
In the end, I quit smoking as casually as I’d started. I flicked that final Lucky Strike cigarette out the window of my 1990 Toyota Corolla, watched it spark against the asphalt behind me, and that was that. When I overcame the urge to light up at the New Year’s Eve party two days later, I knew I could sustain being smoke-free for good. Two days turned into a week. Then a month. And finally, a year.
My senses returned. My sense of smell and taste. Things that had been inhabited for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like to have them at full capacity. As I cycled through new clothes, the familiar stench of washed-out tobacco faded from my laundry. I bought another car later and no longer had the triggering smell of lingering smoke to tempt me back into old habits. I enjoyed the reward of fresh air and clear lungs as my own reward. I felt healthier overall.
But the best part was the satisfaction of knowing I’d put my mind to something and overcome a tough obstacle. That was a way better feeling than anything even a Lucky Strike cigarette could give me.
Eventually, I stopped having to think about not smoking. It soon no longer occurred to me as something that I was “missing.” It was no longer a part of my identity. Until writing this article, smoking was something I hadn’t even thought about for years, perhaps. I’m glad to be smoke-free, even from my beloved brand. And so long as the nukes don’t start flying, I’ll never go back.