Friday, June 7, 2013

"Wanna Go Looking For Cigarette Butts?"

I have some advice for new parents. If you one day catch your child smoking a cigarette, force them to roll their own using discarded butts left on the ground. It will quickly break the developing habit.

I speak with confidence after an experience from my scoundrel youth. One of my best friends in the fourth grade -- whom I am calling "Leon" -- and I were at his house, fooling around on a summer day while his parents were at work. His older sister entered the room.

"Leon, you wanna go looking for cigarette butts?"

They had developed this new ritual to obtain a forbidden smoke, but they needed to do some footwork. I followed them as they walked up the street, looking for every butt they could find with any tobacco left in it.

"Get those Marlboros," his sister directed. "Those are supposed to be the good ones."

In reality, the brand didn't matter. Kool, True, Maraboro, More, Carlton -- they'd all do. Leon and his sister picked up about two dozen spent smokes and headed back home to harvest the tobacco.

They carefully unwrapped the butts and squeezed out the tobacco one a piece of notepad, which they proceeded to roll up. Outside, Leon and his sister -- fourth grader and high schooler -- passed it back and forth. They offered me a drag; I passed. The putrid blue smoke coming out the other end turned me off. The potent smell made it into their basement, and Leon's sister tried covering it up with air freshener. I don't know what they did about their breaths. As far as I know, they never got caught.

Unfortunately, that experience wasn't enough to keep me away from a couple of drags later on, after I got out of college. When cigars became fashionable among the younger set, someone kindly donated a Baccarat stogie to me at a club while I was enjoying a beer. Alcohol and tobacco combined to leave me half-delirious on the dance floor. I don't remember how I made it home sober. That ended the cigar experiment.

Several years later, I experimented with a few Camels. I marveled at how I could get so much smoke out of one small puff without inhaling or coughing to death. At a friend's party, I stole off into a corner of the yard to work a cig all the way down to the tip before somebody called me back to the frivolity.

Picture this: a silhouetted lone figure emerges from a cloud of grey smoke, illuminated from behind by a floodlight. His hair is frizzy and sticking out all over the place, not from the cigarette, but it really doesn't matter. Another light eventually illuminates his face, revealing a grin of satisfaction, something those long-banned tobacco ads might have deemed "pure smoking satisfaction."

I can count the number of smokes I've taken on one hand, meaning I didn't develop a habit. Some people have told me they are "social smokers," meaning they only light up when they're at a party or some gathering where they would feel naked without a cancer stick. I don't understand how people think it calms the nerves. If anything, I would be afraid of hacking smoke all over the place.

Smoking killed Johnny Carson, Peter Jennings, Morton Downey Jr., Edward R. Murrow, Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey. So I marvel at how many of my broadcast TV colleagues continue to smoke, even if it's a quick puff or two in the parking lot every so often. I've seen people who didn't smoke get started, presumably to help them calm their nerves. I've seen news anchors and reporters smoke at parties, inevitably thinking they won't end up sounding like Marge Simpson in a few years.

A year ago, a new anti-smoking TV ad emerged starring a haggard woman with a hole in her throat to enable her to speak. If that doesn't gross you out, then go smoke up the entire tobacco stock of your nearest mini-mart and talk to me later -- if you can.

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