Smoke and mirrors

So round, so firm, so fully packed

The famous and almost certainly apocryphal quote by Mark Twain about quitting smoking maintained that it was easy; after all, he'd done it a thousand times. Whether he actually said it or not, that meme (established long before the word 'meme' itself) is highly resonant: what smoker hasn't felt that way? It's also attractive for two reasons: it's self-deprecatory - we are imperfect creatures, after all - and it allows one to go right on smoking.

Now you have to admit: that's one cool meme.

It also seems to serve as an effective psychological barrier to even trying to break the habit. It certainly worked that way for me, though I have to admit that I hadn't genuinely tried to quit smoking all that often. Maybe five or six times, I'm thinking, far short of the proverbial thousand. I always came back, the way many smokers do, because the memory of smoking was so damned pleasant. That is, I remembered cigarettes as tasting and feeling sooooooo good...much better, in fact, than they actually taste and feel.

The ten-dollar word for this, of course, is addiction. Once you strip away the usual cultural baggage about victimhood and the like, that's just what you're left with: addiction, born in chemistry, rooted in physiology, maintained by psychology, supported by habit and culture...and, lest we forget, the principle of pleasure. No one joneses for something that doesn't make them feel good - even if the actual end result is, well, horrible. Perception is everything, and for years I perceived cigs as being better than ham and swiss on rye.

It was only recently that I began entertaining thoughts on smoking that were somewhat more reality-based (sweet Virginia cigarette, so on, so forth), but I was finding it even more difficult to pull the trigger on quitting than in previous attempts. That didn't seem to jibe with my previous experience - or Twain's, based on the quote - but I had a pretty good sense of what was going on, and have seen it borne out in recent news. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Big Tobacco has had its thumb on the scale:

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health say they have confirmed a study by the state that found nicotine levels in cigarettes increased from 1997 until 2005.

The analysis, based on data submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health by cigarette manufacturers, found that increases in smoke nicotine yield per cigarette averaged 1.6 percent each year, for a total of about 11 percent over a seven-year period.

"Cigarettes are finely tuned drug delivery devices, designed to perpetuate a tobacco pandemic," said Howard Koh, an associate dean for public health practice who worked on the analysis. "Yet precise information about these products remains shrouded in secrecy, hidden from the public."

The health department study released last October examined nicotine levels in more than 100 brands over a six-year period. The study showed a steady climb in the amount of nicotine delivered to the lungs of smokers.

So even while tobacco companies make public noises advising parents to educate their kids about smoking - following the letter of the law as dictated by government regulations and court dictates - they work to bury the hook ever more deeply into the throats and lungs of every existing addict.

That's one hell of a customer retention policy.

Returning to the personal, by your leave: I can look at this thoroughly unsurprising news from a more healthful vantage point, as I haven't touched a cigarette since December 4 - a bit of a jump on the old New Year's resolve. Why, I don't even burn with the expected bitterness of withdrawal...which isn't to say that I don't miss smoking, because I surely do. It's just that I'm working with another meme these days, based on a flawed recollection of a line by actor Robin Williams in the Kenneth Brannagh film Dead Again:

Someone is either a smoker or a non-smoker, there's no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are and be that.

The imperfection here is that I always recall Williams as having said this instead:

The trick is to decide which one you are and be that.

Imperfection, I've found, can occasionally be one's ally.


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