The Coastal Post - February, 1998

A History Of Smoking

By Jon Moore

Smoking in enclosed public places is now illegal in California. Personally, I have known cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobaccos for over 50 years. My mother smoked throughout gestation in at least two pregnancies that I know of. Grandma Jean smoked. Grandpa Maury smoked. Uncle Charlie smoked. Most of their friends smoked. My brother Jim and I were non-smokers, second-hand smokers of the first kind.

In the early 1950s, grandpa sat me on his knee at the neighborhood bar. Baggy black attire with secret pockets inside draped most of the men. Women waved cigarette holders, smoke bellowing from various devices. I could barely see the top of the bartender's head, as he poured colored liquids into glasses and laughed, smiling down at me as Grandpa raised me up onto his shoulders, giving me a bird's eye view of the whole place. When I breathed in, I choked on a cloud of smoke. People lit matches, struck lighters and puffed on big black cigars. Wow! This was much different than being at home. "This is what grown-ups do," I thought. "It's ok," I summarized. I did not imagine these people were poisoning themselves, including me.

Buses, trains, streetcars and billboards displayed cigarette ads depicting glamorous women with handsome men in romantic scenarios. Cigarette butts were accepted as legal tender. I figured they just go away since they're so small. Except, while waiting for a bus in the rain one day, I saw a pile of butts and mud packed in clumps around the street drain grates. I suspected something was not right here. The ocean would fill up with cigarette butts by the time I grew up, I thought.

Movie theaters allowed smoking without many rules, seats in the loge areas and sometimes the balconies had ashtrays right in the arm of the seat. Smoking was restricted to certain areas, but in the early 1950s you were popular if you smoked cigarettes, especially if you were a woman. Movie stars smoked cigarettes in such a cool way, flashing the light at just the precise moment, drawing evenly through the straw-like device. Smoking while the actors on the screen are smoking was probably very exciting, stimulating, even erotic.

The smoke level was low enough to not obliterate the view, nor block the clarity of the screen. If the film was lousy, it was fun to sit watching the smoke rise up through the beams of light emitted from the projector. Screen players flicked their ashes on cue, just before making some important plot-shifting statement. Each person who smoked practiced a novel way of lighting, holding, inhaling and extinguishing the butts as if they were crushing something undesirable.

I was four years old when TV came to our house. Programs were "brought to you by," firmly entrenching advertisement as user-friendly, as if the manufacturers were my friends. I trusted Ronald Reagan and Lucky Strike. Steve Allen and Jack Parr smoked cigarettes on TV. People were nuts about cigarettes.

Arthur "buy 'em by the carton" Godfrey died of lung cancer. The women and men of early TV convinced me cigarette smoking would make people like me better, and I turned it into, I could be famous, just like them. I could act, just like them. I could be my own TV star. Anyone could. My environment was filled with role models. I just looked around-they were all stars! "Your Hit Parade" featured beautiful women with bare legs inside huge packages of cigarettes strutting across the stage singing, "So satisfying, try Chesterfields." Sexy singing female cigarettes was enough of an image, added to the movie scene where a man and woman are under the covers, the man bolts up, and turning to the nightstand, reaches for and lights a cigarette while the near, bare-breasted woman throws her voluptuously golden mane over his bare shoulder-sex and smoking were partners.

One day my friend Bobby Berger and I each stole a pack of Old Gold filters from his mother's cigarette drawer and headed to a nearby vacant lot. One after another we smoked 20 cigarettes, jumped onto our bikes and went home. I couldn't put the key in the lock. I turned green and vomited. I vowed to never smoke again, no matter how unfashionable I might appear to others. Yet, cigarette jingles were happening, each brand emerging with trick "try me" lyrics seductively scripted with captive melodies. The twinkle of my emerging adolescence had been seduced. The subtle nuances of sexual innuendo quite frankly excited me and scared me. The guys figured it out. After one has sex, they light up. It's part of the whole thing. But I'd already vowed to abstain from smoking. Did this mean sex was out, too? What a dilemma!

I decided to smoke a cigarette while drinking a beer, like my role models. Besides, this would teach me proper methods for sex, how to be prepared for that intimate moment. I smoked cigarettes that way for four years, smoking but one or two cigarettes a month. By age 21 I smoked 20 cigarettes each day. I was not having sex 20 times each day. Oh my gawd, I was duped. Twenty years passed. I smoked an average of 30, maybe more, every day. I did exactly what I had vowed not to do. I was a victim of subterfuge, my own word violated, overtly and covertly manipulated into consumerism. Smoking was my very own, they had me-cessation seemed impossible.

Eight and one-half years ago I was invited by a physician friend to stop smoking cigarettes. We were participating in a group where the subject matter was "invitation." To invite someone to do something like that seemed weird. It became clear I was right, that people are not invited to say, earn a living or very many other things in life. Life is tough, like Cagney smoking a stogie. No wonder most people's world is mostly black and white. Often I feel I'm supposed to do this or that, no real choice. No invitation, just force. Forcing myself to do anything usually ends up hurting somehow. This was different, approaching this thing that had me from the point of view of choice-making without guilt. It was weird, but it worked. Here is what I learned:

An invitation is similar to a request. Each has four possible responses. 1. Yes. 2. No. 3. Commit to commit later. 4. Counter-offer (not that, but this).

One morning, eight months later, before I opened my eyes, I saw myself standing with my physician friend. "Jon, I invite you to stop smoking cigarettes," he said. "Thank you, Neil," I retorted and walked away. Only now in my half-waking state, I realized it was a memory. I heard myself make a commitment to commit, later.

"I see," I thought. "I chose number three."

"How about choosing newly," I queried. "Yes," I answered. "I choose Yes, I accept."

I put my cigarettes and lighter in the cabinet, just in case. I have experienced no withdrawal other than noticing the mechanics of smoking, as I have written here.

In May, I will celebrate my ninth year as a non-cigarette smoker. Since the California State Legislature has mandated breathing rights for us all, I invite you to stop smoking cigarettes. And you don't have to wait 20 years, or even eight months to choose.

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