How Stupid Can One Person Be? *Puff Puff*

Our recent collection

Our recent collection

For a person with a moderately good education, keen intuitive insight, abundant knowledge about and access to health care, the question is raised, “How stupid can one person be to continue smoking for forty-one years?”

Since the first introduction of tobacco onto the North American continent, it took over two hundred years for the United States Surgeon General to make his first report on the dangers of smoking.  When Surgeon General Luther R. Terry presented the report, Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General, in 1964, the research that had begun in the 1930’s had culminated in the advisory that there was a “70 percent increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers.”

I began smoking in 1968 at the age of nine-years-old.  At the time, my mother kept a pack of cigarettes in the refrigerator, from which she took an occasional drag.  She was very nearly a non-smoker; however, not quite.  To my young mind, it was so rare that she smoked, she would never remember how many ciggies she had smoked and would assume she would forget one of those times.  In the retrospect of a multi-decade smoker, I realize now that each and every stick is accounted in the mind of the periodic smoker.  It appears Mom assumed Dad, who had a brief history of smoking, took a periodic puff himself. 

I bought my first pack from money I had earned working for my father at eleven-years-old.  I walked to a distant store in south Dunsmuir and told the cashier that my mother wanted a pack of Parliaments, her brand.  I had written a note in my best forgery of her writing requesting permission for me to purchase them for her.  A mini-criminal in a town of 2,400 residents. 

Cigarette holes in my beloved Story & Clark piano keys circa 1970

Cigarette holes in my beloved Story & Clark piano keys circa 1970

Kharma reared its ugly head when, at about that same time, I wanted to be as cool as the singers in the movies and on television.  My mother was at work with my father this one summer day.  I took a cigarette out of its pack, lighted it, and set it on the edge of the piano over the keys.  As I played a cool, jazzy piece on our piano, the cigarette, in all its round construction, rolled off the ledge and landed on what I thought were its ivory keys.  My error was in that the keys were actually made of plastic and melted under the tiny fire-cherry that descended from on-high.   The blackened pits it left in the keys sent me into an emotional tailspin.  I began crying, knowing my mother would have my hide for this transgression.  I finally summoned the wherewithall to figure out that if the keys were plastic, perhaps they could be cleaned like Tupperware.  I got a wet cloth and wiped the holes so they were, at least, no longer black. 

Although my mother was always so aware of everything around her, to her dying day, she never mentioned those pits in the piano keys.  I, of course, never brought them up either.  This cigarette-caused injury can still be seen today on my fifty-plus-year-old piano that continues to reside in my home, a constant reminder of that day nearly four decades before.  

My father was a pharmacist with whom I helped deliver oxygen to former and current smokers suffering from emphysema and lung cancer.  My birthmother and her father both suffered from emphysema and chronic bronchitis.  My former mother-in-law died of lung cancer.  I worked for the California Department of Health Services in the Director’s Office in the 1980’s during the Proposition 99 funding for the anti-smoking campaign.  In fact, I actually reviewed some of the print materials for that campaign. 

I admit those are some significant credentials for a rampant non-smoker.  What does it say that with that huge background, I’m still smoking? 

It’s not that I don’t understand about addiction.  My family has suffered with alcoholism, myself included, drug addiction, food addiction, sex addiction, gambling addiction, and many other very challenging issues.  Yet, here I am, a half-century into my life and still I pick up these poisonous, paper-rolled tobacco products for passionate consumption. 

It’s not as though the media is inundating my consciousness with tobacco ads.  They’re not even legal for the most part.  It’s not like the information isn’t out there.  My health maintenance organization, Kaiser, sends me regular literature on how to quit smoking, as does my personal physician.   This is my daily choice all on my own.

The one time I truly made an effort to quit, I ended up poisoning myself by swallowing the mucky goo being evicted from my lungs.   We always called it lung butter.  I write these words with all their disgusting images attached to clarify just how awful that period was.  I nearly died of phlegm-induced gastroenteritis. 

When will enough be enough?  When will I stop smelling like a filty ashtray?  When will I allow my clothes to carry the aroma of dryer sheets and not burning ashes?  When will I be free of this life-ending addiction.

The truth is that the diagnoses of asthma, chronic bronchitis, and early emphysema, with their accompanying medications, have all been presented to me as current fact.  Ta da!  I have successfully followed in the sad path of my ancestors.  After a mild heart attack at twenty-eight and two strokes in my forties, I still have not mustered the strength to quit.  I do not blame anyone else for this, however, since this has been my doing alone since adulthood. 

The worst part, for me, is the knowledge that under my tutelage, all five of my children began smoking.  Even my granddaughter was affected by smoking when she was born prematurely from what I believe to be partially due to my daughter’s smoking.  

As a teacher of vocal music, my example to my students is poor in regard to proper vocal health.  They all know that I smoke and I am fully aware that my actions have had a much stronger impact on them than the horrifically vivid lectures I gave on the dangers of smoking.

Perhaps, today’s message is a statement that I am close to the switch being thrown toward a cigarette-free existence.  Perhaps, this is simply a drowning man’s panicked gasp.  We’ll see.

For now, however, I’m going out to my lovely poolside lanai for a cigarette.  Stupidly sad, huh?

12 responses

  1. Pappy Boyington said he had more will power than anyone alive, he did exactly what he wanted whenever he wanted.

    As long as you are fine with being an income stream for a tobacco company, and now a HMO, puff away. No sense mentioning the research that went into all those ‘additives’ ensuring cigarettes are as physically addicting as legally possible.

    Seriously, I am of the opinion it is almost impossible to sweep clean every corner of our minds free of the vestiges of addiction, and smoking is the hardest to let go of. If we could…well no sense preaching to the choir.

    For myself watching the third person die of suffocation (emphysema), spending their last days gasping for breath until their body gave out was enough for me. I thought I would make a better choice for my end run, I hope I am successful and am not working on a worse fate.

    1. Dear Michael,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my blog. While I do not perceive this article as an income stream for either a tobacco company or an HMO, the intention was not to discuss the merits of cigarettes, but my inability to rationally work through my own addiction.

      I wish that there was some trigger along the way that would magically force me to stop smoking immediately. Neither my rational mind nor my emotional response has been ignited thus far. That’s all. It’s no more complicated than that.

      We are, each of us, responsible for our lives. Nothing is easy when it comes to addiction, and, as you so eloquent wrote, especially when it comes to tobacco; however, no one guaranteed ease in our lives. We always have choices and sometimes those choices are terribly difficult to make.

      I wish you every success on your smoke-free, healthy “end run.” May you and your family live decades more in joy and well-being.

      Best wishes,


  2. James,

    Do you think that smoking has hampered possibilities in your career as a professional vocalist? If so, how?

    I ask this as an instrumental musician who only sings alone in the shower or car.


    1. Dear Hiram,

      My smoking has impacted my career potential inasmuch as I realized my limitations because of the tobacco. My range was never as wide as it could have been and my support, although amazingly good for a smoker, was not what it might have been. There is a huge number of singers who have accomplished great vocal heights, Pavarotti, Callas, and other opera singers over the years included. It was my fear of inadequacy because of my smoking that kept me from seeing where I could have actually gone. Some might question my talent or skill; however, whatever challenges I may have had in those areas, I believe, were magnified by my smoking.

      Thanks for asking. 🙂


  3. My dear James,
    I quit smoking in June of 1983, 26 years ago, and Barry quit about the same time, except that he snuck one every once in awhile for another year:-). We followed a “program” that was published in the LA Times. I think what helped us the most was that we had really good friends who also smoked, and we all quit at the same time. The program (which I can explain to you in detail later–it takes too long!) was based on behavior modification. I’m obsessive-compulsive enough to actually follow it, and it worked pretty well. I am so glad I did it, and I didn’t have terrible cravings (partly because I cut down slowly rather than quitting cold turkey). Quitting smoking also led us to other health-related decisions (especially exercising), which further improved our health. We’re both healthier now than we were in our twenties! I know it’s hard–but I would love to see you and David try to quit (but you need to do it together!) All my love,

    1. Dear Ellen,

      Thank you, dear friend, for sharing your successes and your support for David’s and my health. We have been talking about it and trying to determine the best method that will work for us. Keep your fingers crossed.



  4. As a man that smoked 3 to 4 packs of cigarettes a day for 25 years, I understand your addiction to tobacco. We all have that trigger that will tell us that it is finally time to quit. Being individual human beings that trigger will be something different in all of us. I think as a smoker we fall in love with tobacco, so the trigger I think is loving something greater. For some it will be that special someone, or perhaps a religion, or in my case, the theater. The love of tobacco is very deep and hard to let go. I know, I still suffer everyday with the urge to light up again. Thankfully I can say that I have not smoked a cigarette in over two and a half years, but the struggle continues and is a day to day battle. The struggle does get easier with time, but I wonder if will go away completely. I have to assume not. Good luck my friend, and remember there are people out there that love and care about you. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to go to them for help. You don’t have to make the journey alone.

    1. Dear Danno,

      Wow! Yours is yet another flower in the bouquet of love and concern I am receiving stemming from this article. I am so pleased that you are continuing to be successful in your journey to improving health. You, along with others who are sharing their stories, are truly inspirational in my own path, and more peaceful in knowing that I, too, have support toward my well-being.



  5. James,

    I am guessing I was not clear in my first paragraph. I was suggesting that by smoking, and the inevitable side effects from smoking, you are an income stream for tobacco and possibly soon doctors, and hospitals. Not many long term smokers get past the hospitals. If you are comfortable with that thought, all is well with you.

    Your post should serve as a good deterrent for anyone starting up, before they get to far along the rose lined path.


    1. Dear Michael,

      I understand the frustration that people feel about smokers and their impact on the health care system. If this wasn’t a struggle, I probably wouldn’t be discussing it. I am not so cavalier as to believe that my choices have no impact on either the economy or the social structure of our society. Of course, I am not “comfortable” with any part of my smoking, as I’m sure you, as a rational human being can surmise; however, it is nonetheless a struggle. I sense a bit of smugness in your tone, and perhaps rightfully so, given that you have gotten to the point where you have wisely stopped smoking. I happen to approach others’ life struggles with a bit more compassion considering I, too, have been challenged in many ways.

      Thanks again for the clarification, Michael.

  6. To James (and Danno)
    I can tell you the craving really DOES go away. Okay, I’m still very oral, and James, I know you’ve seen me chewing sugarless gum–a lot! But I don’t want to smoke anymore. Sometimes I dream that I’m smoking and I get terribly upset that I forgot I was a non-smoker! Then I wake up and I’m so relieved :-). My friend Carol gave Joey a book about quitting that she said helped her a lot. I’ll ask him for the title–. Good luck and blessings to you!

  7. I remember you, David & I going to a nearby store with a forged note (& me being an out-of-towner we thought it would help-maybe it did) and buying a pack of cigs. If I recall we accidentally bought either non-filtered or cools by mistake and I am pretty sure it was the non-filtered! Yuck! So young in retrospect but we sure thought we were all grown up!

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