My Life as a Marlboro Man

As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain from smoking when awake. ~ Mark Twain

Technically speaking, I wasn’t really the Marlboro Man – at least not one of those three poor cowboys who ended up dying of lung cancer after appearing in Marlboro commercials over many years. Yep, they were real cowboys. Philip Morris & Company wanted some authenticity in the commercials. What they got was likely more authenticity than they’d bargained for.

Marlboro cigarettes can be traced back as far as 1847 in England, though I wasn’t smoking them then. The Marlboro Man campaign was started in 1955 in an effort to transition from what was first marketed in the U.S. in 1902 as a “woman’s” cigarette that was “Mild as May” to a “man’s” cigarette. Gone were the mild references to women. The new Marlboro smoker was a rugged man. It appears their efforts paid off handsomely. The original Marlboro men were models and Philip Morris decided they weren’t rugged enough. That’s when they went out and found some real cowboys.

I was three years old when the Marlboro Man advertising campaign began but I don’t believe I smoked my first cigarette before I was twelve. Apparently, I resisted the advertising as long as I could. It’s been downhill ever since.

I don’t recall smoking regularly until age seventeen. It may be that I just don’t remember well, but by seventeen smoking had become a pretty essential part of my everyday life. Unfortunately, I tend to have a fairly addictive personality. Booze and cigarettes seem to be made for each other. At least it seemed that way to me. In addition, cigarettes were more acceptable to other folks during working hours than a six-pack of Budweiser.

I was a hairburner for most of the years between age eighteen and twenty-five. For a variety of not particularly good reasons, I decided I would not go to college. Oh, sure, I was also a bank teller for part of that time but cutting hair provided the bulk of my meager income during those years. Cigarettes seemed an essential part of a job I mostly hated. I felt I had to be on-stage performing and talking all day long as I cut hair. Terribly shy, it was an effort to show up for work and become responsible for the hair (and lives, as so many of them seem to feel) of countless people. I mean, just how many Dorothy Hamill cuts did they expect me to do in one day?

There was also always Valium around to help take the edge off, but smoking seemed to relax me the most. During that period, in fact, I relaxed with up to three packs a day. And, long after the Valium had been put away, the cigarettes and booze remained as constant companions.

I’ve quit smoking a number of times over the years. I think I made it three months once or twice. But, like my drinking, I didn’t have a quitting problem, I had a starting problem. Seems there were always reasons why today just wasn’t a good day to quit, while it always felt like today would be a great day to start. The reasons varied but were mostly a variation on a theme.

For instance, I was absolutely going to quit smoking when cigarettes reached a dollar a pack. A pack cost around twenty-five cents when I started. So, prices would have to quadruple in order to trigger the financial incentive to quit. It was sometime around 1987 before a pack exceeded a dollar. By that time, I’d already been smoking for over twenty years and had managed to move the price point up a bit. In fact, each year found me moving the financial incentive even higher. The price of a pack of cigarettes today is at least twenty times what it was when I started. Obviously, the financial incentive was simply not going to work in my case.

In the 1980s, I was still smoking in my office at the book publishing company. Yes, the hair cutting career had come to end. My smoking had not. My father wasn’t all that thrilled but, you know, I had an ashtray in there and figured I should use it. We smokers eventually moved outside. We continued to smoke inside at home, though. Sometime in the nineties, however, we moved the smoking permanently outside – it was yellowing the paint. You might think smoking outside with a temperature below freezing or well above 100 would be a fine incentive to quit. Again, you’d be wrong. The weather incentive simply meant you smoked faster. It’s good to be adaptable when you’re a smoker.

The Surgeon General’s office first published warnings about the dangers of smoking in 1964. Coincidentally, that’s about the time I started smoking. As a very mature, I’m sure, twelve-year-old, I was not at all worried. After all, twelve-year-olds are invincible. Ask them. They’ll be happy to tell you.

I’m not entirely certain sixty-year-olds are quite so invincible.

I have been sick to death of smoking many times over the years, so have repeatedly decided to quit. The patch, Nicorette gum, hypnosis, acupuncture. Tried ’em all – learned to smoke with them all.

When I got sober almost ten years ago, my plan was to quit drinking, quit smoking, and go off my anti-depressants all at the same time. Frankly, the anti-depressants had to go because I could no longer afford them. A friend counseled me against trying to stop them all at the same time, so the smoking stayed. It was difficult to determine which of a variety of frightening withdrawal side-effects I was dealing with when I stopped drinking and weaned myself off anti-depressants at the same time. It was quite a roller-coaster ride – one I don’t recommend.

I think I may have finally run out of excuses to continue smoking – except one. I’ve spoken with many people who insist that giving up cigarettes is even more difficult than giving up drinking. I might feel the need to argue with them on that point but I will concede smoking is a strong addiction. After forty-three years of almost continuous smoking, the question has become what to do with all the time left over when not smoking.

Yes, not smoking. I started taking Chantix again a few weeks ago. I’ve decided it might be nice to give myself a birthday present of another broken addiction for my sixtieth.

Wondering why no blog in a while? Let’s blame it on Chantix. One of the ways Chantix works is by slowing the metabolism. So, I’ve been a little mellow yellow [Donovan, 1966] of late. Most times, I write when I’m at least slightly angry. How does that work? Well, I write furiously (or while I’m furious), then take out about half of what I’ve written – the really angry parts. Without smoking, I’m left without the creative break of stopping every so often to go to the garage for a smoke while allowing my brain to run through what I’m writing. Now I have to figure out how to write without that distraction. Maybe I should be angry about that. Why yes, that might even help.

Of course, I’ve been on Chantix before, though it’s been a few years ago. Chantix interferes with the receptors in your brain that give you that bang for your buck from a cigarette. Despite that, I just wouldn’t put them down and learned to smoke with Chantix, as well. Some people think I’m a little stubborn.

So, I’m not saying I’m a non-smoker – yet. There are still those forty-three years telling me it ain’t necessarily so.

Besides, there are downsides to quitting. For one, I’m beginning to taste food again. As I’ve long suspected, I’m still not particularly fond of the stuff. And, what to do with your hands? It took forever to figure out how to stand around without a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I finally learned to lean on one hip so as not to be too unbalanced while smoking. Now, without a cigarette, I seem to be tipping over into walls or scrubs – at least a little more than usual.

The benefits of not smoking are legion. My lungs would appreciate a break, my pocketbook would certainly appreciate a break, and there’s a certain part of my psyche that would appreciate being able to pretend that I control something in my life.

It’s a little late now to retire on what I spent on cigarettes for the last forty-three years. Instead of quitting today, I think I’ll try just not starting.