Staff Column- In defense of smokers and not smoking

Michael Williams

Quitting is hard to do. Tobacco’s addictiveness is well known, but misunderstood. This stems from the ‘buzz’s’ mildness. I’ve never shot heroin, but I’m assuming the effect is a bit stronger. Tobacco, on the other hand, provides a brief lightheadedness similar to dehydration (because, shocker, it dehydrates).

Michael Williams
Michael Williams 

I’m a smoker. Soon I will be a former smoker. The intermediate period is the challenge. The social stigma widely applied to tobacco addiction is probably well-warranted. It’s dirty. It attacks every part of your system. It’s a suicide in slow motion.

But we need to get the stigma right. Smoking is a bane. Smokers are not.

I’ve never met a happy smoker. I’ve never met a smoker proud of their addiction. And yet, I have watched individuals pass judgment on smokers time and again. Sit outside Jamrich or West Science between classes, watch individuals puff cancer for brief relief, and then watch the non-smokers pass by, look and then turn up their noses (both literally and proverbially).

Forget that most smokers regularly contemplate quitting. Forget that most smokers understand the risks they are self-imposing. Forget that this substance is highly addictive and that nicotine controls the individual more than the individual controls the impulse.

For individuals who have never smoked, the process of becoming addicted and then (hopefully) quitting cannot be understood.

For smokers, each cigarette may represent regret. Each cigarette reflects a physical and psychological drive toward temporary satisfaction, despite that satisfaction being as fleeting as a few brief minutes.

Smoking is an internal battle to not go outside for a fix. It involves watching the clock, waiting impatiently for an appropriate time for another reward. It’s a constant conversation with the self. “What about now? Can I sneak one before class? I’ll just go in late.”

Smoking is slavery to a natural chemical distributed by faceless companies with only a bottom-line profit in mind. The sticks are often laced with filler for taste to pull in and brand consumers. This means that by the time an individual is addicted, they likely understand their mistake.

This, at least, is reflective of my personal experience with nicotine addiction.

I had my first cigarette when I was nine. My second, a few days later. And 12 years of increasingly consistent smoking later, I honestly do not remember my last day without a cigarette. It’s been at least five years.

And yet, while talking to fellow smokers in that time outside buildings or (when it was legal) over an ashtray in a Coney Island, I cannot think of a single individual who told me they loved the fact that they smoked. I can think of a myriad of instances where individuals share their intent to quit at a time right for them. I can think of more who give up at some point, understanding the years they’re removing from their lives and reaching some morbid form of contentment through that.

I can think of countless individuals who told me to quit while I’m young. I’m taking their advice, while understanding that I need to give them a certain amount of compassion for what will surely be a continuing struggle for them.

Of course, smoking is a choice. But stigmatizing that individual choice without understanding the mental warfare that stems from smoking (not to mention the exhaustion) is missing the point. A dose of empathy and encouragement would go a lot further.