Cigarettes: The End of the Affair?

Maybe I should make like Mark Wahlberg (whose brother, Donnie, I was said in happier times to resemble) and mark the end of my youth by getting my tattoos lasered away. But — nah. They’re not hurting anyone. At least one of them, a cross formed by the title of Pushkin’s poem “Ne dai mne, Bog, soiti s uma” (“Don’t Let Me Lose My Mind, O God”), has real talismanic value. Besides, the procedure costs a lot of money. I never modeled boxer briefs for Calvin Klein, nor a prosthetic penis for Paul Anderson. It’s with a nod toward the grim fact of penury that I chose my great renunciation: cigarettes.

By my rough estimate, I’ve smoked 175,200 of the things since St. Patrick’s Day, 1988, when I was 16. My brand of choice has evolved from unfiltered Camels — a flip of the forelock to Mickey Rourke, that other great scruffy Irishman, who slithered through Angel Heart with one glued to his mouth — through Marlboros and Winstons. I never tarried with American Spirit, which seemed as pointed and pretentious as Trader Joe’s Full-Flavored would have been. Nor did I have any more luck at rolling my own from Drum or Bugler than I’ve had at making origami cranes. For me, economizing meant switching to Pall Mall 100s — as much slow-burning, name-brand bang as could be found for five bucks and change.

Yes, it’s the expense of the habit that’s forcing my hand. A carton of Pall Malls sells for $39 at the local Pima reservation, but I often lack the time for the trip. Besides, there’s something about standing on line with twenty other sullen, saggy-faced people that ruins my day. Sniping, that other great compromise with state and federal revenue services, is — well, I admit, it can be an adventure. On a few nights, when my nerves were as thin as my checking account balance, I’ve stuffed a couple of empty Pall Mall hard packs in my jacket pockets and prowled the smoking section of every business complex in a two-mile radius. After picking out all the butts offering more than a half-inch for smoking, I flew home and spread my bounty on my kitchen island like Erroll Flynn tossing the poached deer onto Claude Rains’ table.

Those moments offered intense satisfaction, and the whole enterprise felt like a kind of stewardship. Then came that day when, arriving late to the cul-de-sac in front of Le Girls, I found some guy plucking the last of the good snipes out of the sand in the imitation Grecian urns. Catching my eye, he smiled slyly, and I saw us as a Norman Rockwell painting: The Early Bird Catches the Virginia Slim. That tainted sniping for me ever since.

Considering the things — travel, a better wardrobe, probably a new car — I’ve given up over the years in favor of cigarettes, the better question might be what stuck me to them in the first place. It must have something to do with my hysterical temperament. Left to its own devices, my state of mind fluctuates between, “Oh, shit!” and “Well, what did you expect, idiot?” Very quickly, hearing myself think gets to be a real drag.

Nicotine, not unlike alcohol, can serve as either a stimulant or a sedative. On the upper side, it causes the brain to release norepinephrine and dopamine, the same agents used to treat depression. On the downer side, it enhances the effects of serotonin and opiates, which, in sufficient quantities, can lull a person into believing a sucking chest wound is just God’s way of telling him to take some time off. For someone like me, who’s never been able to make up his damn mind whether he’d rather be anxious or depressed, nicotine represents a kind of shampoo-plus-conditioner for the soul.

But wait, as they used to say in those commercials for steak knives, there’s more! Nicotine, according to Wikipedia, “is unique in comparison to most drugs, as its profile changes from stimulant to sedative/painkiller in increasing dosages and use.” A small amount in the bloodstream (attainable from a few, short puffs) brings you up; a large amount (yours for some longer drags) brings you back down and then some. Nicotine may be the only controlled subtance on the market that can moderate its own effects. I’m sure my central nervous system figured this out long before my conscious mind did, instructing me on how deeply to draw and when to stop. Sometmes free will just gets in the damn way.

But enough of writing love poems to alkaloids. Almost from the very beginning, cigarettes have offered one gratification that is strictly social. Smoking one might be the only thing no person can do inside a cubicle. You can eat there, you can check Facebook and OMG there. (Can anyone doubt you can gossip there?) Leaving the building to light up sends an unmistakable message to the rest of the world: I am off the clock, in that happy place in my head, firing broadsides into the Bismarck. Talk to the hand until she sinks by the stern.

A recent Harvard study found that nicotine replacement therapies, including the patch and the gum, “did not improve smokers’ chances of long-term cessation.” I could have told those eggheads as much. The patch made me buzz, and as anyone but a Poor Clare knows, the first thing you want to do when buzzing is smoke a cigarette. No luck with the gum, either; all it did was taste horrible. (I’m sorry to say it does keep that flavor on the bedpost overnight — I checked.) I know other medications exist, but they cost money, and if I had money to spend, I’d spend it on cigarettes.

Apparently, quitting unmedicated isn’t quite impossible. In a 1995 meta -analysis, Baillie, Matlick and Hall found that 7.3% of unassisted quitters managed to stay smoke-free “after an average of 10 months of follow-up.” Hey, I’ve hit the 95th percentile before; it’s what got me into Stuyvesant. I think I’ll try it again and see what happens. If I falter, I’ll swallow my pride and hit the Chantix. On the question of going cold-turkey versus cutting down gradually, I’m hedging my bets: my ashtrays still overflow with half-smoked butts. Whenever it’s begun going dark before my eyes, I’ve smoked one. This method — science take note — has carried me through to the end of this piece.

For a joke, my friend Amie sent me a 40th birthday card with a $5 bill inside, like I was her 9-year-old nephew. Together with the change in my bowl, that could cover one last farewell pack of Pall Malls. I will resist that temptation, however, and in celebration of my passage into maturity, treat myself instead to a copy of the latest Maxim.

  • jkm

    This piece is a whole carton of buzz. Congratulations on the healthy choice, but even more so on lighting up the language. You are turning out to be the poet laureate of asceticism. Who knew?

  • deiseach

    Max, good luck with the effort. Not to add to the general air of Irish doom and gloom, but my mother died of lung cancer attributable to her life-long habit of smoking.

    Believe me, you do not want to die that way. Being chewed in half by a Great White shark is preferable, because it’s over faster and hurts less.

    I hope your efforts to kick the nicotine habit bear fruit!

  • Sharon

    I was sitting at the desk trying to print handwriting sheets on a balky printer while juggling a baby on my lap and read the line, “On the downer side, it enhances the effects of serotonin and opiates, which, in sufficient quantities, can lull a person into believing a sucking chest wound is just God’s way of telling him to take some time off.” and I laughed REALLY loud. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. I don’t get time to read you often, but I’m always glad I stop by for a visit! Thanks.

  • Christine

    Hey, This outrageously wonderful post did make me hesitate on my nondrinking pledge (you know it doesn’t take much!) If I’d known you smoked too, I might have cut myself more slack! Then again, I cut myself so much slack that I lost things important to me.

  • Bridget

    I’m not trying to sound like the obnoxious, holier-and-quite-a-bit-less-a-slave-to-a-bad-habit-than-thou former smoker, but I am so glad I quit smoking when I did, if only because the sticker shock would have killed me long before my tar encrusted lungs would! Cigarettes are well over $5 a pack nowadays?! If they had cost that much back when I was a freshman in college, then I probably would never have started. That said, at only $14 a carton*, it was almost cheaper to smoke than not smoke where I went to school. ;) I smoked for 7 years and quit cold turkey a bit over 12 years ago. [Note: recent chest x-rays still show evidence of past smoking....ugh.] I am not a fan of the weaning to quit smoking method. It’s just crap. Knowing me like I know myself, one cigarette would lead to two would lead to a pack and a half a day. My last drag was 12/31/99 at 1158pm, but who’s counting? You can do it, Max!!

    * Smokes were way cheap because the school was a federal one. A pack was only $1.60. Not sure what it costs there at present or if they even sell them on campus anymore.

  • NYCBobby


    This is one the funniest and wittiest pieces you’ve ever written. Good luck on quitting. I remember Prof. Chevray telling me that many years back there was a study published in a medical journal claiming (and it helps to imagine this being said with a French accent), that it was healthier to smoke one or two cigarettes a day than none at all. Go figure.


  • Joe

    I really enjoyed this post! Great writing. If you feel your resolve taking a dip, another factoid that might help you out: cigarette butts have been proven, recently, to be extremely toxic. 360 billion are dropped into the U.S. environment every year; they’re the number one collected item in city, school, river and ocean cleanups. So by quitting you’re not just helping yourself out. So, thanks from all of us I guess. Here’s the website with the science:

    [Thanks, Joe! But do me a small favor, will you? Don't ever, EVER mention the word "dip." The temptation in that direction is ever present.]

  • Olav

    Great post Max. I quit drinking three years ago and cigarettes six years ago. Both habits started (fitfully) in my teens. I don’t miss drinking and I only miss cigarettes occasionally. For me, in both cases I picked a quitting date and gradually tapered off my consumption until I had my last smoke (Dunhill internationals, the red package) and eventually drink (a German type beer in a bottle and some truly wretched white wine, chatesu

  • Olav

    …chateau rotgut). Once I quit it was one day at a time. I did keep a pack of cigarettes in the fridge for six months on the theory that if I knew I could smoke, I wouldn’t, whereas if I bought a pack, I would fall off the wagon.
    It’s definitely doable to quit smoking but you have to want to quit more than you want to remain a smoker. Best of luck! Sorry for two part post, I was doing too many things at once.

  • Pachus

    Good luck with it, Max. Your friends will thank you but even more importantly YOU will thank you!

  • Chris K

    Did anyone mention to you about electronic cigarrettes? No, I don’t sell them, but I do see them as a gift from Heaven. The “smoke” is glycerine, and it comes in flavors, with the abilty to choose your level of nicotine. My husband has been enjoying his e-cigs (inside the house- no more going outside to smoke!) for about a year. He looks and feels healthier. The only drawbacks that I can see are the initial costs of equipment (batteries, vapor “juice”, the smoker itself) and the learning curve of when to recharge and refill. Look around the ‘net, or (only if you want) he can recommend websites to buy from. Good luck!

  • Bernadette

    Good luck on quitting! Not being a smoker, I don’t have any wise counsel to offer, though I could point you to the smoking interview scene in Dead Again. As an asthmatic, it was one of the coolest things ever when my state banned smoking in public places. It was such a joy to be able to go out with my friends and still be able to breathe the next morning! So I appreciate your contribution to more breathable air, even if it’s far away from me.

  • LeAnn

    Great post Max! I smoke, and I am a more pleasant person when I smoke. I smoke because it is a legal drug. I can quit. I have quit for long stretches of time. But when I am honest with myself, I just enjoy smoking and as long as I can buy a pack, I will. I have been forced to switch loyalties of my brand. I used to smoke Dunhill. Then Benson & Hedges. Then Virginia Slims. Now Marlboro Special Blend because they are $4.83.

    Anyway, good luck on your journey!

  • Holly in Nebraska

    So that just leaves rock ‘n’ roll?

  • Gramma

    Man, if I wasn’t old enough to be your grandma, I would come and kidnap you! A stratospheric intellect AND tatts!
    Anyway, smokin’. I’ve quit three times by using Allen Carr’s book The Easy Way to Stop Smokin(g). I put all my trust in Al and none in myself. This time round I haven’t permitted myself the odd rollie (yes, Stuyvesant tobaccy in a liquorice paper shroud) and I lament, I mourn and almost snivel with self-pity because I can’t smoke. I loved it. Now I drink and eat with way too much enthusiasm. Before, I practised a careless ascetisim and puffed away on the patio knowing I was NOT SINNING. Now, nearly a drunkard and a glutton.
    It’s vanity and terror of the doctor (“So, you have chronic catarrh, wheezing lungs, peripheral neuropathy and so on. Dear me. Do you smoke?”) and the imminent refusal of all medical treatment except for the lethal injection that keeps me miserably, resentfully not smokin.

  • Tina

    Congratulations on your recent endeavour! I found a reason to quit smoking when I was engaged almost 5 years ago. I did NOT want to stand outside and smoke in a pretty white dress (I’m such a girl). I had been a smoker more on than off since I was 16 – and 27 when I quit. Maybe you should get yourself a nice outfit you don’t want to be caught smoking in and quit so that you can wear it!! (kidding)

    However, my husband broke it to me that he wants a divoce in September, and I will admit I was tempted to pick up a cigarette…however I enjoy my life too much now and I do not want to go backwards. It may have also helped that I know have a 2 1/2 year old son: and the last thing I want him to do is catch me smoking. (YUCK)

    Good Luck!