Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Cigarette wars

Smokers are not stupid

        On my desk are two books about smoking. One is called Cigarettes are Sublime. The other is Smoking: Risk, Perception & Policy.

        Wonder which I'll enjoy more.

        For all their good sense, anti-smoking crusaders have a problem: Smokers tend to be better writers with more interesting book titles. Also better musicians, artists, polemicists and soldiers.

        In the great war movie, Saving Private Ryan, there is a moment when the weakest young man chuckles at his former aversion to smoking. In war, he clings to its comforts.

        Some people find calmness and conviviality in cigarettes. Others would just as soon they never existed. A cigarette in the mouth of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, for instance, was airbrushed away before his photo appeared on a U.S. stamp.

        Thursday is the annual Great American Smokeout, which mistakes quitting for celebrating a holiday, thereby ensuring no one will quit Thursday.

        The crusaders see their mission as one of life or death, and they are right. Smoking is terrible. But it is also wonderful, and by pretending otherwise, we not only insult smokers but oversimplify history and minimize what it takes to quit.

        I'll never forget a vacation in which one friend told another, the only smoker in the group, to “put out that cigarette.” He had to shout this message because the man was standing alone on a balcony, bothering no one.

        I dumped an acquaintance that night, and it wasn't the smoker.

In praise of butts

        Cigarettes Are Sublime, published in 1993, praises the aesthetics of smoking and its contributions to popular culture.

        “It is the premise of this book that cigarettes, though harmful to health, are a great and beautiful civilizing tool and one of America's proudest contributions to the world,” writes author Richard Klein, a French professor at Cornell University.

        It's a bit melodramatic, but Mr. Klein wasn't just writing a book; he was inventing his cure. Rather than demonize cigarettes, he decided to praise them, which allowed him to say goodbye.

        Every smoker I know would like to quit. Even the most defiant ones are thoughtful about it.

Who laughs last?

        The comedian Bill Hicks, for instance, was famous for long, funny defenses of his habit, but he punctuated those riffs with quiet acknowledgements of his own peril.

        “We live in such a weird culture, man,” Mr. Hicks said in a 1992 performance. “Does anyone remember this, when Yul Brynner died and came out with that commercial after he was dead?

        “"I'm Yul Brynner, and I'm dead now ... 'cause I smoked cigarettes.'

        “OK, pretty scary. But they could have done that with anyone. They could have done it with that Jim Fixx guy, remember that guy, that health nut who died while jogging? I don't remember seeing his commercial.”

        Mr. Hicks goes on to praise the hamstrings on Mr. Fixx's corpse and note the “sloppy grin” on Mr. Brynner's. But as the audience laughs, he adds, almost to himself, “Yul Brynner lived his life. Sure, he died a 78-pound stick figure ... There are certain drawbacks.”

        Two years later, Bill Hicks was gone. The cause: pancreatic cancer. Contributing factor: Smoking.

        Could anyone have forced him to quit? I doubt it.

        Karen Samples can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or at


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