Cigarette smoking

Posted: Apr 04, 2005 12:00 AM
Ellie Parker, my mentor and long time friend, died last month from cancer. She smoked a pack of cigarettes a day on a regular basis. It wasn?t until she was diagnosed with this deadly disease that she decided to give them up.

She spent the last years of her life waging war on the cancer, attacking her own body with radiation and pills until she was left inhabiting something limp and unresponsive. Still, the cancer continued to replicate inside of her, spreading from her lungs, to her spine and brain. There were horrendous waves of pain, violent coughing, constipation, abdominal cramps, convulsions, and humiliation. In the end she had to spend her final days in a Cincinnati Ohio hospice requiring around the clock care.

It wasn?t always like that. I met Ellie in 1983. We were working for the Department of Agriculture. She was a grizzled veteran. I was a new kid, straight out of college. I was precocious, blustery, and full of ideas and passions. In short, I was a challenge to deal with. Still, Ellie took me under her wing. She helped nurture my beliefs, encouraged me to stand for what I believe in as long as it was moral, ethical and legal. She always managed to nudge me toward the pragmatic side of things. Philosophies were evolving good and well, she felt. But ideas in a vacuum were never great. The measure of an idea, then, was what it enabled you to accomplish. She gently implored me to contend my passions with the reality of a situation, with common sense. She helped me hone my writing skills, introduced me to people, and kept me focused. What she was trying to tell me, often with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, was that discipline was inextricably linked to survival.

So why didn?t she have the discipline to stop smoking? I?m upset with her for poisoning her body?I?m upset because I loved her.

I have a friend who is going through the same thing. His father recently had a stroke. He smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for forty years. The doctor told him this had to end. For a while it did. But slowly he began to smoke again. His family implored him to stop. It did not matter. Every morning he would sit at the dining room table, a cigarette in his trembling hands, puffing away. His family worries that he may relapse. But he does not stop.

He is not unlike millions of Americans who disregard the medical warnings and their long term health for a quick nicotine fix. Or, as Robert Califf of the Duke University Medical Center's Division of Cardiology put it, ?smoking represents a decision to trade off a short-term, self-perceived, improved quality of life for a higher long-term risk of death and disability." Most people engaging in this quick fix are unable or unwilling to conceptualize the long term damage that they?re doing to their health. Then there?s the addiction. We now know nicotine is a highly addictive substance that locks into your brain synapses and, over time, supplements physical cravings for nicotine with what Dr. Califf termed, ?unalterable physiological urges."

Still, millions of smokers cling to their habit with mind numbing intransigence. What?s worse, for those of us that never smoked, some of us are sentenced to death as a result of their second-hand smoke. Dedicated smoker Bill Williams founded, an online forum where smokers can vent about anti-smoking trend and trade tips on where to purchase the cheapest cigarettes.

?We view smoking as nowhere near as harmful as the modern media would have you believe, and encourage all smokers to continue lighting up to display our courage despite popular opinion,? proclaims the web site. ?It?s a matter of free choice,? said Williams in a recent Washington Post interview. "I enjoy smoking and view it as a very relaxing and normal hobby. I completely entered into it as an act of free will."

And indeed it is. This is why countless smokers continue to lazily puff away, taking deep inhalations of death. How sad.