Breathy deeply and remain concerned l Chuck's World


Last updated 9/19/2019 at 12:47pm

At some point around the middle of last century, my father began to smoke cigarettes. He would have been around 13, although I’m just rounding off anecdotes for convenience; I don’t have an exact date, and he certainly didn’t.

Fifteen years later, when I was a small child and becoming aware of such things, Dad already had a chronic smoker’s cough, easily recognizable even on the other side of a grocery store.

You could smoke in grocery stores back then. And on planes and in restaurants, even in elevators. He didn’t really stand out for his habit, although he eventually became the most serious smoker I’ve ever met.

He was a casualty of his culture, a time when everyone seemed to be smoking and the dangers, although already on the horizon by 1950, wouldn’t become accepted and integrated into our collective understanding for years. By that time, at least for my father, it was way too late.

He finally quit when he was 66, but he barely made it to 67 before lung cancer took his life. He really did smoke a lot.

Obviously, I can list the names of people who aren’t my father. This is an old story for many of us, preventable disease and early death brought about by a behavior that for a very long time was considered ordinary and unremarkable.

I’m not alone in my peer group. Many friends my age grew up in a cloud of cigarette smoke, sometimes both parents doing the puffing. Some of us picked up the habit ourselves, at least for a brief time in the dim days of being young and foolish. I know only one person who still smokes.

I do know a few who vape, though, and vaping is in the news. It’s an unappealing subject to me, but it’s just so rare that I actually know what I’m talking about.

When I was in college, it was still permissible to smoke inside buildings. Ashtrays lined the hallways, and professors and students alike used them. College actors who played smokers in a play would actually smoke.

I was one of them. Told by a director that my attempts to mimic the habit (I’d never smoked) were less than realistic, I learned how to smoke. It was a great prop for an actor, an easy tool for focus, and it was a disaster.

Because I liked it. Even a childhood spent within breathing distance of a chronic smoker didn’t keep me from developing a very bad habit, which took years to finally stop.

I happen to know something of addiction and compulsive behavior. I imagine it must be difficult for some to grasp; it’s not easy to explain, either.

Reality gets distorted by dependency. This can be as benign as feeling as though you can’t function without that morning swing by Starbucks, or as dangerous as thinking you can get away with driving drunk. Or smoking.

But few of us develop dependency like that. Most people who drink alcohol, for example, are perfectly fine and responsible; for a small percentage, it leads to serious trouble.

And we don’t need to even mention young people. Young people do insane things. I know all about this.

I quit the habit a few years after college. I quit it many times, in fact. I would have smoke-free weeks and months, but eventually I always ended up back at the convenience store, buying a pack of heavily taxed death.

It was an occasional but consistent habit, usually secretive and rarely mentioned outside of exasperated family conversations. I knew that even if I avoided my father’s fate (only a small percentage of smokers get lung cancer), I was likely ensuring respiratory disease down the road.

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One day, I walked into a store, intending to buy cigarettes, and instead walked out with one of those primitive, disposable e-cigarettes. I puffed on it a few times, enough to discover that whatever odd pleasure I seemed to get from the act of holding a tube in my hand and inhaling could be mimicked in a workable way.

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Years before Juul, before those bulky units producing clouds of vapor starting showing up and disconcerting everyone, e-cigarettes were designed to help smokers finally quit their habit, when other methods failed. In my case, they worked as designed.

It doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re almost certainly not benign, although there’s been no solid evidence so far of danger, just concern; they haven’t been around long enough.

I’ve read the disturbing stories over the past few weeks of respiratory disease and deaths related to vaping. I’ve been struck by both the medical mystery aspect, and the misinformation. As I said, I know something about this.

E-cigarettes have nothing to do with tobacco, although they’re often reported on as if they’re synonymous. The carcinogens from tobacco come from lighting it on fire and inhaling the smoke. Vaping is not smoking. It doesn’t make it safe. It most likely is a safer alternative, although we’re correctly assessing the potential now. The risks quite possibly outweigh the benefits to smokers, particularly since we’re seeing horrifying numbers in the younger population.

My bias is confirmed by my personal history; it’s still bias. And if we ban vaping, I’ve already been helped.

But nearly half a million of us die every year from smoking. If you’re wondering why we’re not also talking about banning tobacco products, I’m wondering too.

Just not that much.


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