Lethal Little Habits

Would smoking be cooler if it weren’t so deadly?  Or is it cigarettes’ tendency to slowly murder those who inhale that makes the habit so appealing in the first place?

I have meant to take up smoking for years.  Trouble is, every time I get anywhere near the cigarette rack at a convenience store I am overcome by that burdensome reminder, “This product will kill you, or your money back!”  I avoid Burger King and KFC for the same reason.

There will be the occasional moment—stranded out in the rain, say, cold and miserable—when I will half-jokingly think, “It’s just as well that I don’t smoke, ’cause I could sure use a cigarette right now.”  Otherwise, I can’t say the compulsion to light up full-time has ever been more than a casual curiosity for me.  (In my life, I have smoked a grand total of one pack.)  I understand this as an evolutionary advantage, and know there is no smarter thing I could possibly do than to never give it another thought.

Craig Ferguson, host of the Late Late Show on CBS, last week made one of the more interesting observations about smoking I have recently heard.  Comparing notes with the actor Jim Parsons on their past drinking habits (Ferguson is a recovering alcoholic), Ferguson explained, “I liked smoking.  I only stopped smoking ’cause it kills you.  I stopped drinking ’cause it was ruining my life.”

That is no small distinction, wouldn’t you say?  To abstain from a compulsion that has proved deleterious to one’s well-being is difficult enough, but to quit a habit essentially for its own sake—a habit, mind you, that is designed to be as cripplingly addictive as possible—requires a certain crazed genius.

Yet that is the story of oodles of Americans over the last several decades, ever since word first broke that tobacco products do not have the sparkly clean bill of health everyone apparently thought they did.

Interviewed by James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, George Carlin explained that half the appeal of using cocaine was the ritual involved—laying it on the table, drawing lines with a razor blade, etc.  Said Carlin, “It was brutal, horrendous and a lot of fun.”

I understand what he means, because I made it a habit in school—a subtle, silly comedy bit—to “smoke” objects such as pens and pencils as if they were cigarettes.  It made sense to me:  They offered all the hipness of the act itself, without any of the cancerous side effects.

Statistics show that the national campaign to prevent young people from smoking—and to convince their parents to knock it off as well—has been successful, but to a very limited degree.

The anti-drug movement’s failures, in the view of your humble servant, can be attributed significantly to a lack of honesty on the part of our educators, parents and peers.

The great mistake schools make in all of their anti-drug and anti-drinking messaging is to say that these habits carry no benefits—that there is no conceivable reason to take them up.  That smoking will not make you cool.  That drinking will not win you friends.  That marijuana will rot your brain.  It’s not education.  It’s propaganda.

No public school system, I would wager, has a health curriculum that admits social drinking can make you quite popular indeed, that smoking can very easily integrate you into various social cliques you might want to join, or that the science on the effects of marijuana, while troubling, is by no means settled.  Or, indeed, that ingesting these substances can be exceedingly enjoyable for its own sake.

Yet all these things are true, and it does not take that long for young folks to learn them firsthand.  Why has it become the role of everyone else to act as if this is not the case?

Surely, it should always be the responsibility of teachers to make kids aware of the endless, nasty and sometimes deadly consequences of substance abuse, and to stress that the downsides often outweigh the benefits, particularly in the long term.

But to then neglect the upsides—indeed, to not even mention that they exist—is thoroughly counterproductive.  Sooner or later, kids will wonder why so many people engage in activities that supposedly serve no purpose.

Treating young people as if they can think for themselves might seem counterintuitive, but every so often, it seems to do the trick.

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