As I was driving into town yesterday, I had to stop for a red light behind a dark BMW. Although the temperature was below freezing, the window on the driver’s side was open. I knew this because from out the window snaked a woman’s gloveless left hand with a cigarette gracefully lodged between the second and third fingers. She then raised her left thumb to replace the the second finger while she tapped ash with the second finger into the road. The light changed, she drove on, I turned left and realized it was a long time since I had seen anything like that, and even longer since I had done it myself.
Nobody I know smokes anymore. Nobody I know knows anyone who smokes anymore, if they ever did. My children, who are in their mid-forties, don’t smoke, and neither do any of their friends. My grandchildren are all under eight but almost certainly never will. [That is, they won’t smoke a cigarette with tobacco in it. Other exotic substances I can’t speak to. And won’t be around to find out about.]
The last time Bill and I were in Europe, five years ago, there was still plenty of smoking going on. So I don’t know what the situation is over there by now, or in South America, or in Africa, or the Far East. I understand that the American tobacco giants, like Philip Morris, are still doing very well — but they must be doing it by selling overseas, because there sure isn’t much puffing going on around here. It’s not allowed in public buildings, most office buildings, most offices, theaters, movie theaters, restaurants, bars — nor in many homes. You can’t even do it in the office bathroom. When all this prohibition first went into effect, there used to be huddles of cold, wet unhappy smokers hunched together near the doorways of buildings, snatching their nicotine fix in the rain, sleet or snow. I don’t work in a big city anymore, but I bet those huddles are much smaller than they were ten years ago, if they still exist at all. According to the latest estimate from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), in 2012 just 18% of adult Americans smoked.
This is truly remarkable, because I grew up in a world where almost all adults smoked. I mean, that’s what they did. As far as I could tell, if you were an adult, you smoked. [And if you smoked, maybe that was enough to make you an adult. A lot of kids thought so.] Although I have read some statistics that in 1964, the percentage of Americans smoking was 42%, that couldn’t have been true in the urban Northeast. Just about anyone you asked on the street could give you a light, if you needed one. Learning to smoke was a rite of passage; twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys shared a ciggie after school, trying hard not to cough so as not to look like a novice. All right, nuns didn’t smoke, and very prissy ladies apparently didn’t (except maybe once in a rare while), and people with lung diseases weren’t supposed to, but sometimes did anyway. In any large business organization, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people in your department or group who didn’t smoke.
Indeed, years before I was born Lucky Strike was advertising, “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet,” and women who were trying to keep their figures did just that — as did the fat ones, to get their figures back. There was “Marlboro Country,” with a manly cowboy smoking a Marlboro cigarette on the billboard or the ad page. Word even had it that the light brown illustration of a camel in profile on the package of equally manly Camel cigarettes was intended to suggest a male scrotum and always erect appendage — yours, I suppose, if you inhaled a sufficient number of Camels.
In the space of less than one long life, all that has changed. It’s partly the effect of tobacco taxes, which in my time have driven the price of smoking through the roof. In 1952, the year I emerged from college, a pack of Chesterfields cost 20 cents — less, of course, when bought by the carton of ten. Now? It depends where you live (and therefore what the combined federal and state taxes amount to). The cheapest state in which to smoke is Kentucky, which in 2013 dropped its state tax on tobacco by 26%, making a pack of cigarettes $4.96. The most expensive is New York. As of July 1, 2010, New Yorkers began paying the highest cigarette tax in the country when the state tax increased from $2.75 per pack to $4.35 per pack. In New York City, which levies its own municipal taxes, the total combined state and local tax on cigarettes increased to $5.85 per pack. According to the New York Post, this pushed the price for one pack of cigarettes up to $14.50 at some New York City stores. Sneaking ciggies is certainly no longer an affordable after-school act of daring for little boys anymore.
There are also the warnings that Congress eventually required on each cigarette package and cigarette ad. [Although I must ask. “Smoking may be hazardous to your health?” Is that really going to stop a teen-ager who believes he or she will live forever?] In addition, tobacco companies can no longer recruit smokers on campus by hiring young folks to distribute free three- and five-cigarette welcome packs to incoming freshmen, as they were doing when I went to school. There’s also the hassle of having to ask for cigarettes to be brought up from behind the counter if you want to buy them. Time was that you could just take what you wanted off any grocery shelf, drugstore shelf, or supermarket shelf in the country and bring them to the counter yourself. And not have to worry about any minimum age requirement, either. Cigarettes also used to be in vending machines everywhere — in the subway, lobbies of movie theaters, restaurants, coffee houses. Also at newsstands, in tobacco shops. (Tobacco shops? Are there such things anymore — except as expensively exotic places to shop where the very rich congregate?) I haven’t seen a cigarette vending machine in years. All this is the result of the right of citizens to breathe clean air finally trumping the right of individuals to smoke wherever and whenever they want.
But probably the main reason that cigarette smoking is dying out in the United States is not that it’s become so societally difficult and economically very expensive to smoke. I think it’s because it’s no longer so smart/’cool/whatever to start. And if you don’t start, you don’t have to stop. The fact is: once you’re really a regular smoker — and by that I mean not just one or two, once in a while — stopping is extraordinarily hard.
I used to work for a law firm that represented Philip Morris in the Northeast. We had all the “scientific” jargon down pat. So I could tell you that nicotine isn’t really “addictive.” Why not? Because it doesn’t require you to ingest more and more and more of it to reach the same level of satiety, as is the case with “addictive” substances. (Think heroin, for instance. As time goes on and your body becomes used to it, you need more and more to “feel” it.) In legal parlance, nicotine is just “habit forming.” That means once you reach a level of satiety — by smoking ten, twenty, thirty, forty cigarettes a day, whatever your individual requirement may be — then that’s all you ever need to feel satisfied. More and you begin to feel sick. (But woe is you if you don’t get your daily fix.)
For a smoker, that’s a distinction without a difference. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked. Even after you’ve become sick, and have been warned, and are being treated, you’re still hooked — physically and psychologically, and may go on sneaking cigarettes until you die. So it could be that we have much less smoking in the United States than we used to, not just because of the factors I’ve identified above, which discourage the young from starting — especially now that there are newer excitements, like “body art” and piercing and doing drugs, as well as that old and reliable standby, getting drunk. But also because the confirmed smokers of my generation and just afterwards have now got old and/or sick, and are dying out — either from age alone, or lung cancer, or emphysema, or heart disease, or some other smoking-related ultimately fatal condition. And anyone younger who’s seen a friend or family member slowly and painfully dying from inability to pull enough air into the lungs, or from chemotherapy and radiation that fails, is not going to say yes to smoking. Or if already smoking, is going to make renewed and determined efforts to stop, however hard that may be.
But I digress. In 1931 when I was born, my mother and father both smoked. (I was a nicotine baby!) My mother brought the habit with her from Russia; at eighteen, when she arrived on Ellis Island, she was already smoking papyrossi, with long white cardboard mouthpieces built into each cigarette that doubled its length between the fingers. By the time I came along, however, her brand of choice was Chesterfields — then short, and without filters. I remember her tapping each one on the table, to pack the tobacco more firmly in its paper tube, before putting it in her lipsticked mouth to light it. (And then daintily removing a tobacco crumb from her tongue.) Once a pack was opened, it always left more crumbs at the bottom of her pocketbooks. She would shake them out periodically over the kitchen sink. Her possessions were always as clean as her home, inside as well as out.
I also remember that ashtrays and ceramic cigarette boxes were an important decorative element at our house. For show, she had several very beautiful hand-painted but rather small ashtrays from France and Italy — and for everyday use, other larger industrial glass ones with indentations in them, where she could leave her cigarette burning while she went to do something else that required two hands. She carried these bigger ones around with her from room to room; they were less aesthetically pleasing but more serviceable than those kept in the living room for company to use.
My father smoked Lucky Strikes. They came in a dark green package with a red circle outlined in gold and white in the center. I don’t know when he began. I do know he stopped when Lucky Strike Green went to war. (That was the advertising jingle you heard on the radio: “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War!”) The green coloring for the packages was advertised as having been requisitioned for military use late in 1941 or early in 1942. Lucky Strikes, when you could get them, then began to be sold in a white package. They still had their red circle, now rimmed in green, black and white. But they became very scarce, even in their new package, and my father took their near disappearance as an opportunity to stop smoking. He never talked about whether he found stopping difficult or not. Based on my own experience twenty-eight years later, I think he must have been a very light smoker. He was also a man who did what he decided he had to do.
My mother survived the war with whatever unknown brands the local drugstore at the corner was able to procure. She pronounced them terrible, but continued her smoking. She never went beyond twenty a day; usually it was fifteen or sixteen. When the war was over, she abandoned Chesterfields for Parliaments. They were long, had tips which allegedly “filtered” the smoke, and came in an elegant white package. She continued to smoke for almost all of her life. Eventually, in their sixties and seventies, my father complained; as a result, she had to smoke in the bathroom with the window open so he didn’t know (although of course he did; he could smell it) — but she went on smoking until she was 79. At that point she managed to quit all by herself because, she said, she didn’t want to die. Luckily, she escaped every disease then known to be directly related to smoking, and passed away ten years later of colon cancer, probably induced by extremely poor and roughage-free diet choices but now also alleged to be smoking-related. She might as well have gone on smoking until the end; after my father’s death when she was 81, she wouldn’t have had to hide in the bathroom and exhale out the window.
Well! When I went off to college in 1948, all of that was still ahead. Our recently deceased president had smoked — with a long jaunty cigarette holder from Alfred Dunhill clamped between his teeth. Everyone in the movies was smoking. Catch the black-and-white film classics from the forties and fifties on television and you’ll see it: Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford — all romantically wreathed in smoke, all dramatically drawing poisonous tar into their lungs. Was there a movie hero in that period who didn’t place two cigarettes between his own lips by moonlight (preferably on an ocean liner), light both between cupped palms, and then tenderly insert one between the moist parted lips of the heroine?
Clearly, one of the first things I was going to have to learn when I got to campus was how to light up myself.