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Oh, the Habits We Can Kick

by on November 04, 2015 6:00 AM
State College, PA

The most remarkable thing about talk of making Penn State a tobacco-free campus is that most of us wouldn’t notice the change.

Who smokes anymore? Who can afford the $75 monthly health benefits surcharge the university slaps on its tobacco-using employees?

These days the only smokers I know are party puffers who would no more light up during the workday than they would nip at a scottle of botch. It goes without saying that the party smokers skulk out of doors so as not to poison the air breathed by everyone else.

These al fresco smoking circles recall a transitional period when tobacco-using employees, exiled to the parking lot, formed their own little break-time subculture. At newspapers, staffers from editorial, circulation, and advertising, who might not have interacted otherwise, got to bond. I almost envied them.

Before we started cutting smokers from the herd, we all went about in a perpetual haze of tobacco smoke. My memories of my parents are clouded with images of Mom smoking Kents, then Tareytons, then Carltons, and Dad chomping away at an El Producto or a Dutch Masters while he transplanted rosebushes or cleaned rain gutters.

Imagine car rides in winter with windows rolled up and Dad puffing his cigars and Mom dragging on her ciggies.

Imagine peering through the tobacco pall at the ghostly figures of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and Bill Bradley as they ran the court in Madison Square Garden during the glory days of the New York Knicks.

Imagine flying when everybody smoked. Imagine flying even in the era of smoking and nonsmoking sections, as if the fumes knew they were not allowed to drift forward of Row 16.

Growing up in the age of the Surgeon General’s landmark report linking smoking and lung cancer, I became the anti-tobacco warrior of our household. I would point to the blue wisp rising from my mom’s ashtray and declare that it looked like a lethal gas.

My mom acknowledged that she really should quit. Thirty years later, she did.

And was there anything fouler looking or stinkier than the pulpy stub of one of my dad’s discarded stogies?

“A nasty habit,” he conceded -- one that he eventually kicked also.

To this day I am obnoxiously proud that my teenage rebellion took the form of never having a single puff of a cigarette. I did try other “smoking materials,” though, which kind of blows my holier-than-thou stance right out of the water.

The thinking at the time was that cigars and pipes were OK because you didn’t inhale. Candidate Bill Clinton tried to explain away his youthful “experiments” with marijuana using the same logic.

Cigars were quite the fad among my high school chums. We were particularly enamored of the ones with wooden or plastic tips. I suppose we thought they made us look suave, scraggly hair, frayed jeans, hiking boots, and all.

One poker night, when we were not allowed to smoke in the house, we stuck pretzel rods in our pusses instead.

After sampling every cheap cheroot on the market, I concluded that I did not like cigars.

So I moved on to pipes. Since this happened around the time I took to wearing turtleneck sweaters and tweedy old sport coats with elbow patches, I probably looked more “professorial” then than I do now.

It was kind of fun to fuss with the pipe, the filling and tamping and lighting and puffing, but I couldn’t make myself like pipes either.

I’ve been tobacco-free ever since, aside from one Thanksgiving when the menfolk stepped outside for after-dinner port and cigars. I lit up, felt myself going green, and retreated to the company of the womenfolk, whose society I preferred anyway.

The swiftness of the transition from a smoking to a nonsmoking culture should make us hopeful about our society’s ability to alter its behavior and beliefs. In addition to smoking, attitudes toward homosexuality, ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes, drunk driving, and fouling land, sea and air have changed drastically in my lifetime (which is not to say we don’t still discriminate and persecute and endanger and pollute.)

Just this year, for the first time, perhaps, since the 1930s, one can debate the merits of socialism in polite society without attracting undue attention from the FBI, thanks to the rise of Bernie Sanders.

Who knows, maybe binge drinking among college students will soon become uncool. Or non-consensual sex.

Maybe bad cops will quit killing unarmed black men, our courts will quit filling the prisons with people who did not commit violent crimes and we’ll make it harder to buy a gun than a doughnut.

Stuff doesn’t just happen, though, whatever Jeb Bush may think. People push. So push we must.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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