Thursday, April 7, 2011

Just Say Yes.

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.


  1. This is great, I can appreciate what you’re advocating. But there is a crucial difference between smoking and the other “adult” pleasures you list. The influence of smoking cannot be confined to an individual.

    Drink a cup of coffee or knock back some drinks, and the effects are felt by you and anyone else who chooses to join you. Smoke a cigar, cigarette, or joint, however, and anyone around you is forced to partake in your “adult pleasure”, and consequently partake in the very real health hazards associated with it.

    So while I think people should be free to indulge in unhealthy habits at their own peril, I would modify your tag line to “Smoke Well….in an airtight, isolated room”.

  2. Touché.

    Although I think that still fits into my argument. When your adult pleasure affects others, it puts more limits on how you can enjoy it. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’ve had friends sneak away at parties to smoke outside. Ostensibly they’re leaving to spare the innocent party-goers their cancer-causing fumes, but I’m always a slightly jealous of the secret moment they get to share, alone together in exile.

  3. Needless to say, I hope, I love this. Tobacco, in particular, is one of the great abused pleasures of our civilization. It is deep and dark like chocolate, like scotch, like coffee. It's a plant, for fuck's sake, and a luscious one at that. The crime, as you note, is not smoking — it's mindlessness.

    I say yes to this!

  4. Fascinating. But what about kids who would not yet understand the complexity of a "say yes" campaign, or more importantly, do not know themselves and their limits? If you're advocating a culture change, think it would be hard to confine this to adults only.

  5. I totally agree with Lindsay. Just say yes to smoking and just say yes to the quick addiction that cigarettes are designed to cause. And of course. . . enjoy the cancer as it dances down your throat, hold it in your lungs and enjoy it.

    To say, "play with cigarettes" is to say, "go play in the undertow." It's designed to pull you in and if you play in it enough. . . It's just gonna get you.

    Love ya Lindz

  6. Sarah & Brady - You're both right. And I'm not advocating a "say yes to smoking" campaign for kids (or adults!) by any stretch of the imagination. But I am curious if there's room for a nuanced message about enjoying all things more slowly, carefully, wisely, rather than just labeling things as good/bad, and instructing people to avoid/embrace accordingly. After all, it's not just cigarettes that we abuse as a culture - it's food, it's sex, it's TV.

  7. And Brady, re: addiction, when I was writing this I was thinking about how alcohol is also addicting, how anything - even so-called healthy things like running - can be addicting and have negative repercussions. But I realize that nicotine is particularly, perniciously addictive, and it probably weakened my argument not to address that.

  8. When I went off to college my dad said, "You can get as many tattoos and piercings as you want, but if you start smoking I will kill you." (Meant in gest, of couse.)

    I've still never smoked a cigarette, but I've inhaled enough self-destructive and unheathy deeds.

  9. I got hooked on smokes in my teens. The nicotine is what makes tobacco pleasureble. My very first smoke got me sexually aroused, and then my next three packs, I would masturbate with every cigarette, secretly. Then i Quit doing that for 3 years until I was old enough to buy them in college, and I was hooked off and on to smoking and orgasms for 9 years. I hope to not smoke nicotine again, as I have proved it to myself that I cannot handle it. My advice is to not mix your vices! Too many orgasms is one thing, and a cancerous addiction is another. I also had leukemia as a baby, and that is another reason I never should have smoked so many gahd-dam cancer sticks. I am done with them, two years clean now, and feel lucky. Glad I ran into your blog.

  10. Anonymous - you seem like someone with whom I'd like to share a smoke sometime.