Still Smoking After All These Years

Today’s New York Times ran a story by reporter Lizette Alvarez on “The Holdouts” – professionals who, in defiance of increasingly menacing health warnings, spend their breaks dashing to an elevator, descending to the concrete canyon below, trudging to an area that meets the minimum requirement of being at least 25 feet from the skyscraper where they work, however inclement the weather, in order to have their smoke.

One of the people interviewed by Alvarez was Linda Greene, an executive assistant for a large financial services organization.  Her story is all too familiar:  At age 15, she filched an unfiltered Pall Mall from her sister’s cigarette pack, smoked it – and promptly threw up. Undeterred by her discomfort, not to mention a $100 bribe offered by her father, she persisted.  “Everyone was doing it, advertising it, glamorizing it.” Sadly, 47 years later, she’s still smoking.

What keeps her doing it? Also a familiar story:  “I don’t want to gain weight.”

Although weight concerns were not central to the article, a few clues are provided about the tradeoff Ms. Greene makes not just in terms of her long-term health but also, ironically, of social acceptability and of how she looks and feels on a daily basis.

  • Her husband, aggravated by the haze in their small apartment, periodically asks her to extinguish her cigarette.  She tells him no – though she avoids lighting up when friends who don’t like cigarettes come to visit.  “I use Febreze all the time,” she says, “on the rugs and on the furniture.”
  • If she smokes more than ten cigarettes per day, her chest hurts.
  • She declined to identify her employer, presumably because the way in which smoking is increasingly stigmatized.

She knows she should quit and she wants to quit – someday. “I have to decide I’m going to quit,” said Ms. Greene. “It can’t be someone else who decides.”  Once again, a familiar story – it’s a control issue.  And she’s absolutely right; unless she’s ready to quit, she probably will not succeed.

I wrote Life After Cigarettes for Linda Greene, and for women like her.  I wanted to tell her about the control she’ll regain when she quits smoking.  I wanted to offer a new perspective on her weight concerns and give her some ideas for managing her weight so that it maxes out within a dress size or a unit on the Body Mass Index. I wanted to share with her the gift of those ordinary moments she can enjoy relaxing with her colleagues when she’s not spending her breaks rushing out for a furtive cigarette.  This is what I’d tell Linda Greene if I had the chance.

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