Carlson: Addiction? No Butts About It

Nobody ever said that giving up cigarettes would be easy. Photo by: Nancy CarlsonNobody ever said that giving up cigarettes would be easy. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

By: John Carlson—

Opioid addiction is far more horrific, I know, but I’m always amazed by the addictive power of cigarettes, and what big business fighting that addiction has become.

Kicking cigarettes was the hardest thing I ever did.

I have a creeping feeling this was because I had my first smoke so young, maybe some weird chemical reaction knocked a screw loose between my ears or something. My buddy Dougie and I were six, maybe seven at the oldest, when he swiped a pack of his father’s Lucky Strikes and we headed off to the woods for our first taste of tobacco in all its unfiltered glory. That smoke probably lasted all of two minutes, but I spent the next two hours eating every berry I could pick to purge the scent of that Lucky from my breath.

Looking back on it now, I’m just glad we found wild blackberries and not something weirder. I’m also glad we didn’t stumble on a pond full of chubby little tadpoles first, or in my desperation I may have taken my first taste of sushi.

At any rate, I didn’t have another smoke until I was a teenager, but once I did I became half-way obsessed. Climbing to the storage area topping our garage, I’d smoke like a proverbial stack. Sometimes I’d buy them. Back then clerks would sell you cigarettes if you looked at least 12. And sometimes I’d steal the little five-packs of Winstons Dad brought home from business flights, then tried to hide in his underwear drawer.

Beats me why I looked for them there in the first place, or why the heck he hid them, but it seems pretty suspicious to me now.

Summers home from college I’d smoke cigarettes in the foundry where I worked and in the bars where, being blessed to live in Ohio, they served 3.2 beer to teenagers. Then back at college I’d smoke in endless trips “around the block,” as my fellow smokers at the Christian university I attended called a nearby square of country roads. We could be kicked out of school for smoking, but that was an acceptable risk, we reasoned. At least then we’d be free to smoke all the time.

Finally ending up in the newspaper business, I bought three packs a day for years and thought nothing of it. After all, back in 1975, smokes from our snack room’s cigarette machine cost just 45 cents a pack.

This was all well and good until seven years later, when Nancy and I got married and started having kids. By then, cigarettes’ health risks were well known. I found myself trying to rationalize smoking them with the fact that, if I was suddenly snatched up to that Big Discount Tobacco Shop in the Sky, no replacement Daddy was going to love Katie and Johnny as much as I did. Couldn’t do it, of course. Rationalize it, I mean.

So, I tried to quit. And tried. And tried. And tried some more. Others even tried to help, like the young grocery store clerk who, ringing up my Marlboros one day, smiled at me and said, “Ahhhh, the Red Death.” And while that uncalled for remark made me want to park that pack in a place where he’d have had trouble sparking a lighter, he was younger and undoubtedly tougher than I.

Plus, of course, he was absolutely right.

For the next few years I had numerous stretches where I would buy multiple packs a day, smoking what I vowed was my last cigarette, then throwing the rest of the pack away. Three hours later I’d buy another pack, smoke what I vowed was my last cigarette, throw the rest of the pack away and …well, you get the idea. What’s more, by now packs cost a buck or two. If I’d saved that cigarette money, I could have been driving a Camaro instead of a Chevette. At the very least, I could have been drinking higher-quality whiskey.

When I finally got fed up with all this, Christmas was upon us, and I asked Nancy for a box of fifty green cigars. Now, I would NOT recommend this method of quitting to anyone else, but I took those cigars out to my writing area in our attached garage and smoked them. Every single one of them. Down to the nubs. Inhaling all the way. In three days.

By some miracle I didn’t die, and somehow that did the trick.

That’s not to say my smoking-related troubles were over at that point. For short periods, I backslid a couple times. Plus, it seemed like for the next six years or so, with me no longer clutching cigarettes, you never saw me without a doughnut in my hand. Eventually that weight came off, mostly.

Better yet, I could breathe more easily. I mean that literally as well as figuratively, as society’s accommodation for smokers was disappearing like smoke into thin air. Back in the throes of my addiction I was always paranoid that would happen, and then where would I be?

On very rare occasions I still want a cigarette, which only illustrates just how addictive they are. Back when I was trying to quit, I remember a wonderful old retired firefighter telling me he’d given up cigarettes sixty years earlier.

“And I still wanted one this morning,” he admitted with a smile.

As for me, I just wish my old pal Dougie and I had confined ourselves to catching tadpoles that long-ago day in the woods.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.