To Smoke or Not to Smoke: How Social Pressure Did Me In

Everyone around me smoked. It looked so sophisticated. The lighter snapping out a bit of flame at the cigarette’s tip; the gray smoky swirls languishing in the air; and the two streams of smoke wafting from the nostrils. So sexy! Well, maybe more dragon-like than sexy.

Unable to resist the lure of the crowd, I asked my Dad for permission to smoke. Do kids do that today? His response was immediate. “No, Suzann. Absolutely not. It’s not good for you. You’re too young.” This from a man who smoked cigars all day every day for most of his life. Since absolutes were not part of his vocabulary, Dad added, “We’ll talk about it again when you’re 18.” That was a year away, much too long for me to wait.

I sneaked into our bathroom one spring afternoon, opened the window, and for the first time lit up, a contraband cigarette in one hand, in the other a towel to wave away the telltale odor. What I didn’t realize was that the benefit of cigarette smoking, the nicotine rush, came from inhaling.

Hurrying into our apartment to change clothes after a fast softball game, my brother Stan, 4½ years my senior, heard the muffled but tortured coughing. He barged into the bathroom, took one look at me, and to my outrage, burst out laughing. Finally, calming down but unable to wipe a grin from his face, he said, “Suzann, if you’re going to smoke, smoke right.” And with his help, I did. It was the only thing Stan taught me that I believe we both regretted.

One year later, when I turned eighteen, and with my father’s consent, I began to smoke in public using my newest purchase, a gold-colored, cylindrical cigarette lighter.

Going from a novice smoker to an expert took time, and over the years, the number of cigarettes smoked increased until I reached the apex of two packs a day. I was married by then, with a wonderful husband, Ed, and two adorable daughters, Stacy and Valerie. While all that smoking was upsetting me and my family, I couldn’t stop or even cut back though I tried.

Bone cancer, diagnosed in Valerie, our younger daughter, when she was three, wrenched apart our normal every day family life. I stopped worrying about my cigarette habit. But more and more often, I’d be reminded that smoking impacted poorly on a healthy lifestyle. I discovered, also, that it began to bother folks who were nearby. They either got up and moved to another spot as far from me as they could get, or quietly inched away.

Let me offer some personal examples of how the evolving times changed social behavior and made existence very uncomfortable for me as well as for many of the other smokers I knew.

One evening, in an unusual night out for the two of us, Ed and I were sitting in the stands of Madison Square Garden anticipating an exciting basketball game between the New York Knickerbockers and the Boston Celtics. I paid no attention to several of the pre-game announcements coming from the intercom. I was excited and relishing our time together although I did hear, “Please be courteous to your neighbor and put out your cigarette.”

I continued to smoke despite the inevitable build-up of guilt when a man in front of me turned around and barked, “Do you have to smoke? Didn’t you listen to the announcement? Can’t you put those damn cigarettes away while you’re here?”

Stunned at his outburst, I didn’t respond but quickly put out my cigarette. Afterwards, when I wanted to smoke I crawled over the people seated to my right, marched up the stairs, and out into the hallway. I leaned against a wall feeling very deprived, and smoked.

The fun of the game and our outing had been destroyed. I was angry. What right did he have to talk to me that way? I can do what I want in a public place. That guy’s just a jerk. I continued to smoke.

The next incident involved a close friend. An organizational meeting at her house began with another, more rigid announcement. Said she, “We don’t allow smoking in our house anymore.”

Again, I was stunned. She knew that I was a smoker: a heavy one at that. How could she do that to me? I waited for her to say, “Oh, Suzann, not you.” That didn’t happen and throughout the meeting, when I wanted a cigarette, I smoked it in her front yard. It was late fall and cold outside, but nevertheless, I stood there, chilled and irritated, and smoked each cigarette down to its nub. This is stupid. I should go home instead of standing here and freezing. I continued smoking.

The pressure mounted. More incidents such as the above occurred. My family pushed and my friends shook their heads in dismay but I needed my cigarettes. Valerie, in the throes of another recurrence, was admitted to the hospital once more, and we spent our days and nights together dealing with treatments and tests.

The visitor’s waiting room all those years ago was a smokers’ haven and when Val was hospitalized, I would sit there for a few moments with my feet up and smoke but only with my daughter’s sanction. She would say, “You can go to the waiting room, Mommy, for one cigarette but come right back after that.” She loved to boss me around.

When Valerie was released from the hospital and back home again, I decided that the time had come to put away my cigarettes. My family cheered long and loud when I signed up for the Smokenders Cessation program. A friend joined me but she smoked only ten cigarettes a day and that really bothered me. Only ten cigarettes a day?

Although we began the program together, I went to most of the seven sessions alone, stopped smoking, graduated with the class of thirteen adults, and received my Smokenders certificate and a small Smokenders pin. My friend had dropped out early in the program and smokes to this day. Self-satisfaction lingered up to my last cigarette before graduation. That’s when envy took over. My family raved about my accomplishment for six weeks.

I was on edge the entire time. My body felt wracked by a restless, crawly demand for … something. Yeah, yeah. I know what that something was. The Smokenders program had warned us about those cravings. Moreover, I was filled to the brim with excess energy, the scourge of the recently radicalized, newly-converted, non-smoking smoker. So, what to do? I started smoking again. And I did it gladly. Well, not quite gladly since that old familiar guilt was trotted out along side gobs of relief.

Several months later, we lost Valerie, and three weeks after that devastating trauma, Ed and I established The Valerie Fund in her memory. Smoking as an issue was gently talked about but generally kept in the background. Until one afternoon during a meeting at Overlook Hospital: in a discussion about setting up the first Valerie Fund Center dedicated to treating children with cancer in New Jersey, I decided, without any more dithering, that the time had indeed arrived.

Hey, Smokenders, I’m back.

And so, I completed the course again; graduated again; and received my certificate and pin, exact duplicates of the first two.

Excess energy was a problem the first time and remained a problem no matter how busy I was.

What to do? Exercise, I was told. And so I chose to run first thing every morning. I bought three books, all about running. All those who knew me snickered at my obsession to run the ‘proper’ way. I ignored them, read my books, bought a pair of New Balance running shoes, and was off.

Well, not quite. My first run was attempted early one sunny morning. It was beautiful out. I took a deep breath, and got halfway down my short block, huffing and puffing on clean air instead of cigarette smoke. While the beginning efforts were not easy, running eventually gave way to a runner’s high and an exhilarating mental escape. Happily, my runs had become an established part of the day, clearly another habit, but I knew that this habit was a healthy one.

While I still hungered for a cigarette, I recognized that one small, careless puff would lead me back to my old smoking-addicted self. To counter the need for nicotine, I began to chant silently: NOT ONE PUFF. NOT ONE PUFF. NOT ONE PUFF.

I became a genuine anti-smoking convert: no different from all the other obnoxious non-smokers out there. Then I remembered the guy who sat in front of me at Madison Square Garden. He won “the most obnoxious non-smoker” award of the decade. He just didn’t know it. Or maybe he did.

Now, I wrinkle my nose if I smell cigarette smoke on someone’s clothes and I can’t imagine allowing anyone to smoke in my house or in my car. But I try to hide my distaste. I remember how it felt to be chastised for smoking and how hard it was to suffer through the withdrawals. And so, I watch my mouth.

I am no longer a runner – bad back and bad knee. But speed walking has replaced the running and I remain an ex-smoker. My mantra has endured for thirty-two years: NOT ONE PUFF.

Most people today have forgotten that I was once a smoker. I have not. The path was dotted with temptation but I walked away triumphant. I am proud of that.


Try one of the many resources in your area when you’re ready to quit. For example, the Tobacco Dependence Program at UMDNJ-School of Public Health, or the numerous Smokenders Cessation Programs throughout the country, Or try this: Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (RCINJ) in collaboration with the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, the UMDNJ-School of Public Health, Healthier New Brunswick and the Middlesex County Health Department are hosting an education seminar on November 11 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. entitled “Kicking Butts: Are You Ready for the Great American SmokeOut?” To register, click on the following:

If my essay, To Smoke or Not to Smoke, has touched you in any way, please click on the comment box below and let me know your thoughts. Thanks. Sue

Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein