To Smoke or Not to Smoke

no-smoking-symbolToday is the Great American Smokeout, an annual event sponsored by the American Cancer Society to encourage smokers to quit for a day in the hop that they quit for good.

Personally, I have zero tolerance for cigarette smoke. It gives me a fierce headache so I avoid it at all costs. But the psychology behind why people smoke fascinates me. I consider it a colossally self-destructive behavior. Not everybody feels that way, of course.


Bill Hicks

Houston comic Bill Hicks, who died of cancer, loved to smoke. “I like to think of my life as a highway flowing through the universe,” he eloquently explained, “and I need the tar to fill the potholes in my soul.”

To smoke or to complain about smoke, that is the question. Smokers and nonsmokers alike are ready to deliver their impassioned views at the drop of a match. Over the years, I’ve collected passages from celebrities who have climbed up on the smoking soapbox to express their love or hatred of cigarettes. They range from arrogant to insightful to hilarious. Overall, they make for a good read


New York author and curmudgeon
From her essay, “When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes … Shut Them”

“Smoking is, if not my life, then at least my !hobby. I love to smoke. Smoking is fun. Smoking is cool. Smoking is, as far as I’m concerned, the entire point of being an adult.

“I understand, of course, that many people find smoking objectionable. That is their right. I would, I assure you, be the very last to criticize the annoyed. I myself find many—even most—things objectionable. Being offended is the natural consequence of leaving one’s home. I do not like after-shave lotion, adults who roller-skate, children who speak French, or anyone who is unduly tan. I do not, however, go around enacting legislation and putting up signs. In private I avoid such people; in public they have the run of the place. I stay at home as much as possible, and so should they. When it is necessary, however, to go out of the house, they must be prepared, as am I, to deal with the unpleasant personal habits of others. That is what “public” means. If you can’t stand the heat, get back in the kitchen.

“Due to something called the Minnesota Clean Air Act, it is illegal to smoke in the baggage-claim area of the Minneapolis Airport. This particular bit of news is surprising, since it has been my personal observation that even nonsmokers tend to light up while waiting to see if their baggage has accompanied them to their final destination. As I imagine that this law has provoked a rather strong response, I was initially quite puzzled as to why Minnesota would risk alienating what few visitors it had been able to attract. This mystery was cleared up when, after having spent but a single day there, I realized that in Minnesota the Clean Air Act is a tourist attraction. It may not be the Beaubourg, but it’s all their own. I found this to be an interesting, subtle concept, and have suggested to state officials that they might further exploit its commercial possibilities by offering for sale plain blue postcards emblazoned with the legend: Downtown Minneapolis.”


Author and Philosopher


Rand occasionally used her books to promote smoking. In her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, for example, the subject of smoking prompted a newsstand owner to rattle off a spirited response to the book’s heroine:

“I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind—and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”

Ironically, Rand’s intransigent devotion to cigarettes would cost her her life. On a routine doctor’s visit at the age of 70, her doctor, as he had done on many such visits, urged her to quit smoking. Rand had been smoking two packs a day for more than forty years and had no intention of giving it up. She defiantly demanded that he give her a “rational” explanation why she should even consider it. A moment later, when a nurse entered the room with Rand’s x-rays, he was able to grant her request. He pointed to an x-ray that showed a malignancy in one lung. As biographer Barbara Branden relates in The Passion of Ayn Rand:

Ayn looked down at the cigarette in her hand. She reached out to the ashtray on the table beside her, snubbed out (her) cigarette with a firm, precise movement, removed it from its holder and began replacing the holder in her purse; then she stopped, shrugged, and dropped the holder on the table.

She never picked up another cigarette.


From an interview in
The Paris Review

kurt-vonnegutINTERVIEWER: Have you ever stopped smoking?

VONNEGUT: Twice. Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds. I stopped for almost a year, and then the University of Hawaii brought me to Oahu to speak. I was drinking out of a coconut on the roof of the Ili Kai one night, and all I had to do to complete the ring of my happiness was to smoke a cigarette. Which I did.

INTERVIEWER: The second time?

VONNEGUT: Very recently—last year. I paid SmokEnders 150 dollars to help me quit, over a period of six weeks. It was exactly as they had promised—easy and instructive. I won my graduation certificate and recognition pin. The only trouble was that I had also gone insane. I was supremely happy and proud, but those around me found me unbearably opinionated and abrupt and boisterous. Also: I had stopped writing. I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again. As the National Association of Manufacturers used to say—

INTERVIEWER: I’m not sure I know what they used to say.

VONNEGUT: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”


Actor who died of lung cancer


Actress and Author

In her book, It’s All In The Playing, MacLaine claims she was jolted into quitting her smoking habit by a vision that came to her while she was asleep.

“I have never been a really heavy smoker, lighting about a pack a day. I never inhaled. It was a social habit, not an addiction, something to do with my hands, or to induce a sense of relaxation by being companionable. Nevertheless, I stuck to one brand. I smoked Vantage 100’s.

“My vision was a huge package of Vantage 100 cigarettes. The package was the size of a human being. I climbed up the side of the package and looked over the top of the interior. It was empty. There were no cigarettes in the package. As I peered down into the empty package a voice rang in my ears: ‘See to it that it stays empty.’

“I laughed at the vision. It woke me. It was as though my higher self had painted a picture so graphic I couldn’t ignore its message.

“I am now one of the legions of people who have given up the filthy habit. I haven’t had even a puff since that bizarre vision. I’m not sure I can recommend my method of quitting to anyone else, though.”


Former Head Coach, Minnesota Vikings

bud-grantSeptember 3, 1984 was designated “Bud Grant Day” at the Metrodome. A pre-game ceremony was scheduled to honor Grant, who had retired after the previous season. It was a chance for the fans to say thanks to Bud and for Bud to say thanks to the fans.

When Grant stepped to the mike at the close of the ceremonies, he made a few brief remarks and then closed with the rather mystifying words, “Thank you for not smoking.”

Grant says he still doesn’t understand why everyone made such a big fuss over the remark. “You gotta find a way to get off stage,” he says with a shrug. “It wasn’t anything profound. I don’t know that anybody ever acknowledged to the fans that the players on the field, as well as other nonsmokers in the stadium, appreciate their not smoking in the Dome.”

The reaction to his closing comment, he chuckled, was amazing. “I had a number of calls and letters from people thanking me. There was no opposition to it, just support. No one said, ‘Mind your own business.’

“I’ve always been an advocate of nonsmoking,” notes Grant. “I was against smoking before it became popular. I was a minority. Now I’m a majority. Smokers are on the run and now they apologize for their habit.

“I’m not on a soapbox unless you ask me,” he says. “My father smoked. I can remember being carsick from the smoke (when I was growing up). He was in generally good health but he died at 65 of heart disease. I’m more convinced than ever that smoking contributed to it. Smoking takes its toll; it takes away the extra ten or fifteen years at the end of your life.”

Grant’s father was determined not to pass his addiction on to his son. “He said he’d give me $100 if I went through high school without smoking,” recalls Grant. “That was when everyone smoked but I didn’t feel I had to be hip. It was strange because he didn’t have the hundred dollars. He was making a point. I never got the (money).”

Grant says he tried to use his influence as head coach to persuade Vikings players to quit. “We used to have a rule. You could smoke outside but not in the locker room or the chow halls. I could win that battle but I couldn’t keep ‘em from smoking.”

Grant says he finally gave up trying to show one of the Vikings’ all-time greats the error of his ways. “Bill Brown was a failure of mine,” he says with a laugh. “He was a great football player and a great friend but he still smokes.”


Iconic Cartoon Character 


Stand-Up Comedian

dan-st-paul“I was flying to the French island of Martinique. I was in a 40-seat plane. 39 people smoked. It was like being in a cigarette.

All French people smoke and they’re very thick, non-filter cigarettes. It’s like sucking on a burning plantation. And since they’re French cigarettes, there’s no warning on the pack. It just says, ‘We Have No Surgeon General!’”


Stand-Up Comedian and Movie Actor (“Pretty Woman,” “Waiting for Guffman”)

larry-miller“I don’t know when we became such crybabies in this country,” complains Miller. “People are suddenly so allergic to smoke. They see a curl of smoke in the corner and say, “Mom, make him put it out! Mom!”

Miller may be annoyed with nonsmokers, but he certainly has not lost his sense of humor about the subject. “Working out is a tremendous waste of time,” he says in his act. “A friend of mine runs marathons and he’s always talking about this runner’s high, but he has to go twenty-six miles for it. That’s why I smoke and drink; I get the same feeling from a flight of stairs.”

Offstage, Miller relishes getting a few jabs in at what he considers the lunatic fringe of the anti-smoking movement. “People don’t like cigarettes, fine,” he concedes. “But it’s not enough now that they have nonsmoking rooms in hotels. I get the point, maybe people smell it on the drapes, that’s fine. Now they have nonsmoking floors, which to me is insane. Look, folks, if you’re in Room 520 and the guy in Room 580 lights up a cigarette, and this really annoys you, the problem is you. Go home, get a good therapist, and grow up.”

Miller may be offended by overly-enthusiastic nonsmokers but that doesn’t mean, he says, that he doesn’t respect their rights. “I would never light up a cigarette in a crowded area,” he acknowledges. “I’ll always ask around, I know the way folks are. If someone really says sincerely, ‘Gee, I’d rather you not,’ I’ll say fine. But if I’m at a baseball game or a bowling alley, it’s like saying, ‘No smoking at the poker table.’ It’s insane, it’s madness. These people should go to Europe or to Hong Kong. The whole world smokes! Babies smoke!”


Stand-Up Comedian and co-creator of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show

lizz-winstead“I finally tried to quit smoking,” confessed Winstead in her act. “I took my ashtray out of the shower.”

Winstead, never one to shy away from speaking her mind, acknowledges that smoking is a serious issue but not one that’s very high on her priority list. “It’s legal to do and until it isn’t, give smokers some respect,” she says emphatically. “People say, ‘Your smoking bothers me,’ but so does the smell of your perfume and the chemicals you put on your lawn and the smoke that comes from your barbecue and the fact that the corporation you work for works with corrupt governments and poisons animals. So I guess we’re even.”



mark-twainIn a letter to Reverend Joseph H. Twichell, his closest friend, Twain wrote of his reasons for curtailing his smoking habit:

“Smoke? I always smoke from 3 till 5 Sunday afternoons—and in New York the other day I smoked a week, day and night. But when Livy is well, I smoke only those two hours on Sunday. I’m ‘boss’ of the habit now, and shall never let it boss me any more. Originally, I quit solely on Livy’s account (not that I believed there was the faintest reason in the matter, but just as I would deprive myself of sugar in my coffee if she wished it, or quit wearing socks if she thought them immoral), and I stick to it yet on Livy’s account, and shall always continue to do so, without a pang. But somehow it seems a pity that you quit, for Mrs. T. didn’t mind it if I remember rightly. Ah, it is turning one’s back upon a kindly Providence to spurn away from us the good creature he sent to make the breath of life a luxury as well as a necessity, enjoyable as well as useful, to go and quit smoking when there ain’t any sufficient excuse for it! Why, my old boy, when they used to tell me I would shorten my life ten years by smoking, they little knew the devotee they were wasting their puerile word upon—they little knew how trivial and valueless I would regard a decade that had no smoking in it! But I won’t persuade you, Twichell—I won’t until I see you again—but then we’ll smoke for a week together, and then shut off again.”




In his book, The Chief: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons, Morrow writes of his father’s smoking:

I loved the way he lit a cigarette: he struck the match and squinted and cupped both hands like a sailor in a high wind, like a man intently bent on performing some hasty, dangerous task upon which a great deal depended. Grace under pressure. It took only, say, three seconds, but the abrupt concentration of the act always amazed me. All thought and conversation were suspended until it was accomplished, with a smooth blue exhalation. Then the (poker) game resumed …

I loved the glamour of my father’s smoking. He smoked Camels, endlessly, one after another. The wondrous blue smoke that curled up from him, that swirled around him, that shot in twin jets from his nostrils or else popped from his mouth in staccato bursts as he talked after inhaling—that smoke was part of his essence. His incense. I always thought the smoke smelled lovely, when it came from his cigarette. Yet when I smoked one myself, it tasted quite different. It then became dangerously internal, part of me, a poison inside. My body hated it. But emulation was stronger than revulsion. I kept at the cigarette and homemade cigars for months. Their allure as a prop of manhood was powerful. I saw myself as my father when I smoked.


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16 Responses to “To Smoke or Not to Smoke”

  1. Kathryn Fruish Says:

    Thanks this is great!!! as I ex-smoker I found it really interesting. In fact, it inspired me to write my own little story ( blog- angel intervention, how I stopped smoking) I was one of those people who thought I would NEVER be able to stop….until a little old man stopped me in the street, have a read if you have a minute.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Hey, Kate! Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing your story. I enjoyed reading it. And I’m very glad that you were able to kick the habit, and that your coughing and wheezing stopped immediately. May you live a long, healthy and prosperous life!

  3. Deb Reilly Says:

    Thanks for the laughs, Phil. I quit over 16 years ago, but occasionally smoke in my dreams. I’m so disappointed in myself when I wake up!

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Better keep some Nicorette gum under your pillow, Deb!

  5. Gina Says:

    Funny you tweeted this just now.. I had forwarded it to my husband (a smoker, in the process of quitting) earlier today, and he was just talking to me about it. He had a small beef with ‘the writer’ concerning Bill Hicks’ cause of death. You wrote ‘cancer’, and due to the context, might imply lung cancer, but it was actually pancreatic. (Something a defensive smoker would be nit-picky about).

    Otherwise, he thought it was a great post (esp. Lizz Winstead and Mark Twain)…:)

  6. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Good timing! As for your husband’s beef with Bill Hicks’ cancer, I have a beef with him having a beef. Health is a continuum, and the more toxicity we add to our system, the more we compromise our immune system and thereby our overall health. Consistently adding poisonous chemicals to our body through smoking compromises every system in the body as well as overall health. I was recently listening to a TV report about Patrick Swayze’s pancreatic cancer that noted that Swayze had acknowledged and taken responsibility for the fact that his smoking was surely a likely cause of his cancer. No offense, but to say that smoking only causes lung cancer and is not a factor in other diseases in the body is an astonishing act of denial. It was explained to me by a smoker that every smoker HAS TO live in denial to some extent; it’s the only way they can justify an obviously deadly habit. But don’t take my word for it, ask an ex-smoker.

    UPDATE ON 2/05/09: Here’s an excerpt from an article about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer:
    “Scientists know far less about what causes pancreatic cancer than about most other solid tumors. But smoking and a family history of the disease are considered the top risk factors; high-fat diets, diabetes and a chronically inflamed pancreas may be risks, too.”

    It brings to mind a story I read in Reader’s Digest. a man wrote of visiting his friend in the hospital. His friend was dying of lung cancer and in a great deal of pain. He wrote that, as he walked out of the hospital, he was thinking how foolish his friend had been to have smoked all those years. He was thinking this . . . as he lit up a cigarette! Years later he marveled at how “unconscious” he had been—at the time, his mind wouldn’t allow him to make the connection between his friend’s lung cancer and his own smoking. That’s how insidious smoking is. It pummels logic and rational thinking and casts them aside, even as its victim swears on his mother’s grave that he is in complete control of his faculties.

    Hope I’m not being too harsh, Gina. My intent is simply to be realistic. *hops off soapbox*

  7. Bill Says:

    I guess its an addiction and if we could explain it, no one would smoke.

  8. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Actually, I think quite a few smokers would continue to puff away. One man’s poison is another man’s pleasure.

  9. Pam Quinn Says:

    I’m going to start smoking. Apparently it will make me funnier, more exotic and interesting.

  10. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Oh, no, I’ve created a monster!

  11. Bill Hicks Says:

    Bill Hicks didn’t die because of smoking. Yes he died of cancer, but it had nothing to do with smoking.

  12. Phil Bolsta Says:

    WIth all due respect, if a smoker gets cancer, the smoking contributed to it. Health is a continuum, and the more toxicity we add to our system, the more we compromise our immune system and thus our overall health. The body is an interactive system; you can’t isolate and dismiss one factor like that, especially such a toxic one. Smoking is one of the most toxic things we can do to our bodies, so to say smoking had nothing to do with a smoker getting sick just isn’t so.

  13. Donna Taylor Says:

    Some of the known causes of pancreatic cancer are drinking and smoking. Whether they was the source of Bill Hicks’ cancer we’ll never know. Bill Hicks stopped drinking and tried to quit smoking. He didn’t ‘love’ it. Like any addict, you love the hit but not necessarily the method. If you know his comedy you’d see that he didn’t appreciate the arrogance of non-smokers for being ‘holier than thou’ and compared them to people who would dance in front of someone in a wheel chair. He saw smoking for what it is, an addiction or handicap. Cigarettes ‘had their hooks’ in him plain and simple but as a comedian, he worked with the material.

  14. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Yes, I was fortunate enough to see Bill Hicks perform in person. In fact, after the show I was able to talk to him backstage. I told him that he had written one of my favorite lines of all time and I recited his smoking line. He laughed and said he had forgotten about that line. A few years later, I was sorry to learn that he had passed away. He was a talented and funny guy.

  15. Donna Taylor Says:

    That would be a special memory indeed.

    His humour is still relevant, his insights are still thought provoking. I’d like to think that if he were still here, he would be a tour de force in many arenas.

    R.I.P. Bill

  16. Phil Bolsta Says:

    There is no doubt that he would be as relevant as ever, Donna.

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