Tuesday, July 02, 2002

PULFER: Cigarettes

Why did it take us so long?

        Our commander in chief set up a temporary gym on the South Lawn of the White House and ran around in front of the whole world in shorts. It was for a good cause. “When it comes to your health, even little steps can make a big difference,” President Bush said.

        In my opinion, it's too hot to run right now, even if you take little, bitty steps. So I got my heart rate up by thinking about tobacco. Today is the 20th anniversary of my last cigarette. I might take it up again in 20 years or so, I joked at the time.

        A lot has happened. Now, you can rent a nice villa in Provence for what it costs to have a serious cigarette habit. And I had a very serious habit. More than two packs a day, most days. I smoked while biking, while horseback riding. Even while swimming. Once, I complained because I thought my racquetball club should have ashtrays courtside.

        Geez, I wasted a lot of good breath back then.


The last puff

               I remember that last cigarette clearly. I also remember the first one. The thousands in between are hazy. This was, of course, a haze I shared with family and friends and strangers.

        We smokers ruled. The world was our ashtray. We flicked our Bics on airplanes, which provided filthy little receptacles on the armrest. There were convenient ashtrays in doctors' offices and hospitals. We occasionally stumbled across discreet, apologetic little signs: “No smoking, please.”

        But not very often.

        Matches were our entitlement. Like ashtrays, they were everywhere. Free books of them with “Draw this girl” art academies advertised inside. Handsome embossed boxes with the names of fine restaurants.

        Sometimes people would actually refuse to let us exercise our God-given right to blow smoke in their faces. We insisted on a darn good excuse. For instance, “I'm allergic.” And they'd better be wheezing and have the hives to prove it. Otherwise, what we did with our own personal lungs was none of their business.

        But the tide was turning. Most people — except poor, ignorant tobacco company executives — were beginning to conclude that perhaps drawing carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide and nicotine into our lungs might make us sick. Even though they were “springtime fresh” and “taste good like a cigarette should.”

        Those of us who woke up to reality with a cigarette in our hands found it unaccountably difficult to do the sensible thing. This was not a habit like biting our nails. We were, in fact, addicted. A 1978 memo discovered in the files of tobacco giant Liggett wondered, “Is it morally permissible to develop a safe method for administering a habit-forming drug when, in so doing, the number of addicts will increase?”

        Most of us have seen the answer to that question, maybe in our own chest X-rays or cardiograms. Or maybe we have watched somebody else's struggle. My Uncle Dick, a kind and valuable man, a veteran, father of three, grandfather of seven, is toting around a tank of oxygen. He doesn't have enough breath these days to crack his signature corny jokes.

        As for my joke — the one about smoking again — it doesn't seem funny anymore.

       E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.


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- PULFER: Cigarettes
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