The Death of a Killer
How I Quit Smoking Cigarettes For Good
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by cigarette smoking. Growing up in the 1970s, despite the ban on TV commercials for cigarettes, I was inundated with images from magazines, billboards, movies, and TV shows that glorified the habit. It was still acceptable back then to smoke in offices, stores, restaurants, and other public places, even hospital waiting rooms. Candy cigarettes were a favorite choice at the local corner store for a quarter. It was virtually impossible to escape the tobacco culture, especially in South Carolina where I was raised. My family, however, were avid non-smokers who regularly reminded me and my siblings that smoking was a dirty habit, a fact that unfortunately did not prevent my eventually picking up that dirty habit myself.
When I was barely seven years old, I would regularly walk a short stretch of rural road to my best friend’s house during the summer to go play. One lucky afternoon on my way to play, to my great delight, I happened upon a nearly full pack of cigarettes lying on the side of the road. The green and white package read “Kool,” and I felt obligated to pick it up and take it with me. We could barely contain our excitement when I arrived at his house and displayed the treasure. After sneaking into the kitchen to locate some matches, and informing his mom that we were going outside to play, we proceeded to the nearby woods to begin our newfound project. Once safely out of sight, we attempted to smoke. It is very difficult to light a cigarette without drawing on it while the flame is near, but we didn’t know any better. After a few minutes of trying, and several matches, we managed to get the cigarette lit, and began puffing away. We also didn’t understand that you were supposed to inhale the smoke, so we just enjoyed pulling the minty smoke into our mouths and blowing it out. Most of the fascination with cigarettes was related to the visual impact of the smoke, you know. Not surprisingly, our seven year old minds were careless enough to leave evidence of the project lying around, and we were caught and reprimanded. That should have taught me a lesson.
I resisted further temptations to smoke for many years after that, until I was eighteen. After graduating from high school, my friends and I made the ritual trip to Myrtle Beach that inevitably follows commencement. My best friend’s parents were heavy smokers, but we had avoided any temptation all through high school. Now, we were away from parental authority, and my buddy bought a pack of smokes and offered one to me. “Why not?” I thought to myself, and lit my first Marlboro. Within seconds, I was overtaken by a distinct euphoria, the first nicotine buzz that I had ever experienced. Almost instantly, I was hooked. The sensation I felt was likely the very same as the billions of other smokers around the world, as they became addicted to smoking, too. Over the summer I gradually increased my cigarette intake, and by the time I attended college in the fall, I was easily a pack-a-day smoker. I preferred cigarettes with the most tar and nicotine I could find, as a rule, with the exception of unfiltered Camels (although I did try them). In a matter of 3 months, I had gone from non-smoker to enthusiastic heavy smoker.
In the late 1980s, cigarettes in the south were rather inexpensive, at about $1.00 per pack. Smoking easily became a major part of my young life. Without it, I would not have become friends with a lot of people, including my future spouse. It didn’t take long to officially group myself among the smokers, as opposed to the non-smokers. After college, my spouse and I were still brand-loyal, avid smokers, although I religiously avoided smoking before visiting my parents, who continued to frown upon my dirty habit, incredulous that I had begun such a stupid pursuit. At work, I was unable to smoke for long periods of time, so evenings were essentially a chain-smoking event. Within a few years, as I reached the age of 25, I believe a part of my brain matured somewhat, and I began to question what my life would look like in 10, 20, or 30 years if I continued to smoke like a chimney. My wife wanted to have children, too. We instinctively knew that smoking was a road to nowhere, a deadly trap that was stealing our money and sending us to an early grave, but the prospect of quitting was also rather unpleasant. In spite of our nicotine addiction, in order to protect our future unborn child, we decided it was time to quit. January 1, 1996 would mark a new era, but we needed a strategy.
There are many different reasons why smoking becomes a habit, beyond the nicotine addiction itself. For me, it was a combination of needing to keep my hands busy while also craving some oral stimulation. It is important to identify what makes smoking an important part of your daily routine if you’re going to conquer the habit. In anticipation of the impending date, I stocked up on a bunch of hard candy and chewing gum. Before going to bed on Dec. 31, 1995, I disposed of ALL the remaining cigarettes, ashtrays, lighters, matches, and anything else that could remotely be a reminder of smoking. On New Year’s Day 1996, any time the urge to smoke hit me, I popped some candy into my mouth instead. I also found that disassembling a certain type of ball point pen creates a small hollow tube, through which you can inhale clean air in the same manner as you would draw from a cigarette. There can be no denying that the first two or three days are the hardest of all, but mimicking the action of smoking through a hollow tube, combined with keeping your mouth busy with candy and gum, allow you to go through the motions of smoking without receiving the nicotine.
After a couple of days, I was enveloped in a new sensation which felt like a burst of energy throughout my body, likely my body’s reaction to the lack of poison chemicals that had permeated all my tissues for the previous seven years. Each day that passed brought a new and improved feeling to my body and mind. My senses opened up again, and everything began to taste and smell better. The feeling of dread that preceded New Year’s Day had transformed into renewed energy, optimism, and a sense of accomplishment like nothing before. Within a few short weeks, the smell of secondhand smoke was extraordinarily offensive to me, something which remains to this day. Twenty-five years later, I look back at the day I quit smoking and acknowledge that it was the single most important decision I have ever made. My life is immeasurably better today thanks to taking that step.
Cigarette smoking causes the death of approximately 8 million people around the world each year, and is responsible for almost 1 of every 5 deaths in the United States, all of which are preventable.