The Price of Smoking

By Cowles, David W. | Newsweek, February 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Price of Smoking

Cowles, David W., Newsweek

I finally kicked the habit after 50 years, but I couldn't escape lung cancer and emphysema

I'm not going to waste your time trying to persuade you to quit smoking. You've already heard or read all of the reasons that you shouldn't light up. You've seen the surgeon general's warnings on every pack of cigarettes and in every tobacco ad. You've been lectured by friends and family. You're aware that more people die from lung cancer than from breast cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer combined-and that almost all lung cancer is caused by smoking.

The fact is, until you're ready to break the habit, none of the arguments proffered by anti-smoking advocates will have even the slightest impact. But, since you've read this far, I'll give you the benefit of my experiences.

I tried my first cigarette when I was 15. Always a scrawny kid, I thought that smoking made me look more adult and sophisticated and therefore more attractive to the opposite sex. Plus, I liked the slightly intoxicated buzz that inhaling provided. Before long, I was hooked and smoking a pack a day.

Fifty years later, I still enjoyed cigarettes. With my morning coffee. After a good meal. Relaxing in front of a video-poker machine at my favorite Las Vegas casino. I'd even joke about nonsmokers, asking what they did after having sex.

My cardiologist tried his best to persuade me to stop. He said I'd reduce the risk of having a heart attack or stroke, lower my blood pressure and improve my circulation. I felt that he was probably right- for other people. After all, my father had smoked all of his life and lived to his 90s. I would listen politely, eager for the good doctor to finish so that I could get out to my car and light up.

On numerous occasions I halfheartedly tried to quit. Not because I really wanted to, but because it seemed to be the right thing to do. Sometimes my determination lasted less than an hour before I absolutely had to have a cigarette.

Much as I didn't want to admit it, for the last couple of years I knew that smoking was affecting my health. I'd be out of breath after climbing a short flight of stairs and had great difficulty keeping pace with my companions in the mile-high air of the Utah mountains where we went trout fishing every Father's Day.

Things got particularly acute this past summer. I'd installed a small fish pond in my backyard, and every week I had to clean out the water filter. Just bending over to open the filter unit wore me out. I'd come back into the house gasping for breath, sit down and smoke several cigarettes until I mustered up the energy to finish the chore.

One night I was on my way home from work when I realized that I was down to three cigarettes.

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