I’ve always been told to just say no to smoking. That whatever fleeting pleasure a cigarette offers, it subtracts minutes from our lives, plants cancers in our lungs and mouths.
The one awful puff I took of my friend’s cigarette in middle school was enough of a deterrent for me; I’ve never been tempted to go back for more. As a kid, I’d watch my uncle enjoy a cigarette and wonder how many he had to suffer through until they started tasting good. Why would anyone do that, especially when cigarettes give you cancer? To look cool? I couldn’t think of any other explanation.
But a while back, I heard an interview on NPR that made me rethink my assumptions about smoking. It was with a guy who, though not a smoker himself, had written a book in defense of smoking. Smoking, he argued, was an adult pleasure, and all adult pleasures have an element of poison, of danger, of pain. The bitterness of coffee, the sting of alcohol, the tenderness of sex: these things are not just incidental but essential to enjoyment.
When we get older, our ideas of pleasure change. I remember sneaking a sip of my dad’s coffee, and feeling perfectly mystified at the strange world I was destined for where bitter black liquid tastes good, and where it was conceivable to enter an ice cream store and not order anything.
But when I was a little older, my dad would sip scotch and pour me a taste, and we’d argue and discuss the world in a way that only a New York lawyer Jew and his daughter can. Scotch started to taste good in that context. He’d share bits of wisdom with me like “with freedom comes responsibility,” and, come to think of it, you could say the same thing about adult pleasures. Scotch and sex are more demanding pleasures than popsicles and Polly Pocket. They require knowing the size of your own stomach, as Nietzsche said.
If you don’t pay proper attention to adult pleasures, they will hurt you. But the dark side of a thing needn’t be its refutation. We should teach our children to avoid risk, yes, but we should also teach them to use discretion, to savor. I think that method would go a long way in reducing smoking deaths — because the worst part about addiction is that you don’t enjoy your poison as much. You can’t taste nuance when you reach for something by rote.
So instead of a just say no campaign, why not a just say yes campaign? Say yes to enjoyment, say yes to your own limits. Smoke Well. Don't remove danger; heed it. Be present. Smoke a cigarette like you’re in yoga class. Inhale, taste the smoke as it dances down your throat, hold it in your lungs and enjoy its...well, I don’t know. I’m no smoker. But I can appreciate it from afar.