Letting Go of Nicotine in the Age of Neoliberalism

Smoking

Contributor: Alex Garrett

My First Time:

In September of 2016, I landed in England for a study abroad program. I had never used nicotine in my life. As I loitered at a local pub with some friends, the topic of smoking arose somehow. I listened silently as my pals described their experiences with the most seductive plant on Earth.

“I only do it when I’m drunk,” said one. “I tried it in high school but didn’t like it,” quoth another.”

I only do it when I’m drunk,” said one. 

“I tried it in high school but didn’t like it,” quoth another.”

 

I’ve never smoked a cigarette!” proclaimed yet another. She smiled proudly as she recounted the ubiquity of tobacco in Paris, where she had studied for a semester. In all those months, she said, she resisted the temptation to take even a single drag.

I had never smoked either, but something about hearing those words aloud made me feel pretentious and close-minded for my own abstinence. I didn’t like how it sounded, for some reason. It seemed as if she viewed smoking as the nervous twitch of a filthy Untouchable Caste — a grotesque indulgence with which she could never contaminate her own delicate form. I felt like a prince who refused to leave the reaches of his palace for fear of the rabble beyond.

“The more intoxicated we became, the more fluidly our conversations flowed. We slurred loudly while we stumbled through the streets of Oxford, looking for a place to piss on the campus of a rival college.”

On Halloween, I ditched these friends in favor of some local graduate students who had invited me to drink with them. The more intoxicated we became, the more fluidly our conversations flowed. We slurred loudly while we stumbled through the streets of Oxford, looking for a place to piss on the campus of a rival college.

Suddenly, one of the women in our crew took a pack of cigarettes out of her purse and began to distribute its contents. Caught off guard, I accepted a smoke and reached for a lighter, moving methodically as if I had rehearsed for the occasion.

While the grad students yapped about their academic and social misadventures, I stared in awe at the burning cylinder between my fingers. It fit in my hand like a key in a lock. I felt like a revolution had just occurred in my life, or I had been reunited with a dear friend after an entire lifetime apart.

“I anxiously awaited my walks to class and to meals. I loved every step of the process, from the moment I tore out a pinch of tobacco until I flicked the used filter into the street.”

I began to roll cigarettes by hand, which was common among my British acquaintances. I didn’t just smoke; I looked forward to smoking. I anxiously awaited my walks to class and to meals. I loved every step of the process, from the moment I tore out a pinch of tobacco until I flicked the used filter into the street.

“I quickly discovered a diverse community of smokers who spoke to me as if they had known me for years.”

I quickly discovered a diverse community of smokers who spoke to me as if they had known me for years. I would ask strangers if I could buy a loosey off them, and they would immediately give me one or more cigarettes for free.

“I know how it is,” they would say. “When you need one, you need one.”

On many occasions, my fledgling fondness for tobacco drew me into long conversations with people I had only just met. One moment, I was sitting on a bench alone; a few minutes later, I was talking to a groundskeeper about the consequences of the Brexit vote. This happened every single day. I made a habit of leaving lighters at home, so I was forced to start conversations with random Britons. My social circle and my knowledge of European current events grew rapidly.

For unrelated reasons, I became increasingly nocturnal. I fell into an awful rhythm of going to sleep after sunrise and getting out of bed shortly before dinner. During the lonely hours in the middle of the night, I rolled cigarettes diligently. Every 100 minutes or so, I would step into the bitter cold to smoke a few. I was totally content.

Each hand-rolled cigarette was unique, both in its appearance and in how it would burn. Moreover, in those early days of tobacco use, every nicotine buzz felt unique as well. An act as simple and common as smoking was for me a trailblazing journey, distinctly my own. One by one, I discovered Smoking After Coffee, Smoking After Sex, Smoking After Meals, First Cigarette of the Day, Smoking While Drunk, and all the other variants of smoking that would ultimately become intractable triggers for me whenever I tried to quit during the years that followed.

“I was happy to subsist on juuls, smoks, and other vapes, but at the end of the day, I needed to inhale nicotine in some form.”

Attempts to Quit:

Throughout 2017 and 2018, my efforts to quit were lazy and sporadic. I tried cold turkey, nicotine gum, biting my nails, and other things. Nothing could replace the sweet allure of nicotine. I was happy to subsist on juuls, smoks, and other vapes, but at the end of the day, I needed to inhale nicotine in some form.

“I could blame every knee-jerk urge to leave on my new physical addiction, and no one ever suspected that I was just sick of hearing their voice.”

Furthermore, I was never entirely sure that I wanted to quit; cigarettes provided a multitude of unexpected rewards. If ever I was bored at a party, or tired of talking to someone at a bar, I could simply say I had to smoke. Tobacco provided the ever-present alibi I never knew I needed. In every social situation, I suddenly had an eject button that I could press at my own leisure. I ditched boring classes, crappy conversations, uninteresting nightclubs, and everything else I didn’t like under the guise of needing a drag — and it worked every time. I could blame every knee-jerk urge to leave on my new physical addiction, and no one ever suspected that I was just sick of hearing their voice.

“I could blame every knee-jerk urge to leave on my new physical addiction, and no one ever suspected that I was just sick of hearing their voice.”

My parents were shockingly supportive of my new habit. They eagerly shared cigs with me whenever I hinted that I vaguely wanted to smoke. They wrapped their proverbial arms around me as if I had at long last joined their sacred brotherhood of wheezy pleasure-seekers. I began to talk to my parents more than I had in many years.

It wasn’t until I got medicated for ADHD that I seriously considered taking action to stop smoking. My psychiatrist warned that I could face dangerous heart issues if I used nicotine and prescription stimulants together. He offered to prescribe me Chantix, but I turned him down; my dad insisted that Chantix had led scores of patients to commit suicide, and that it would be safer to continue smoking. Eventually, I relented, and my psychiatrist prescribed me a starter pack of the cessation aid.

“I don’t understand the science behind Chantix, but I know that it both reduced my urge to smoke and made cigarettes unenjoyable.”

I don’t understand the science behind Chantix, but I know that it both reduced my urge to smoke and made cigarettes unenjoyable. When I smoked, it felt like I was watching someone else smoke. I would usually extinguish my cigarettes when they still had lots of tobacco in them. Smoking became boring and unpleasant.

The less I smoked, the more I began to appreciate the role nicotine had assumed in my life. It kept me company when I was lonely; it entertained me when I was bored; it comforted me when I was upset; and, it gave me something to do with my hands whenever I felt restless. Tobacco products had become my best friend in this world; my addiction to nicotine had lasted far longer than any of my romantic relationships. Without the hedonistic thrill of smoking to break up my day, I hardly knew who I was.

“The less I smoked, the more I began to appreciate the role nicotine had assumed in my life. It kept me company when I was lonely; it entertained me when I was bored; it comforted me when I was upset; and, it gave me something to do with my hands whenever I felt restless.”

The nights were, and are, the hardest part. I lie awake in bed, done with my schoolwork, uninterested in drinking, bored as shit. For years, I used vapes in bed, inhaling various flavors while I stared at my iPhone. When I got serious about quitting nicotine, my nights became dry. I didn’t have obsessive thoughts about smoking, like I thought I would; I live next to a gas station, and I barely even considered going next door to buy a pack. I just felt like I had lost a friend. My heart was broken. It still is.

Smoking Crosses Path of All Classes of People:

The appeal of tobacco products extends so far beyond a chemical addiction. When you begin to smoke, you are welcomed into one of the most diverse subcultures on Earth, spanning six continents, all economic classes, and all ethnicities. The sweet allure of tobacco brings people together across all demographic lines, creating bonds fortified by compassion, generosity, and mutual respect.

“The sweet allure of tobacco brings people together across all demographic lines, creating bonds fortified by compassion, generosity, and mutual respect.”

The underground world of smokers is as close to a classless, stateless society as any communist project in the history of the human race. When I lived in DC, for example, I saw lobbyists and beggars smoke side-by-side, identically curled into the sad defecatory posture of tobacco consumption. I have given cigarettes to homeless people, but they have also given cigarettes to me. If you offer a homeless man your last cigarette, he will likely refuse, reasoning that you may need it soon. So much separates the haves from the have-nots, even at the most invasive levels of the human experience; healthcare, nutrition, vernacular, and hygiene practices vary so widely from the richest to the poorest. But under the thumb of tobacco, we are all equal. Absent any smoking cessation aids, we are all equally powerless to the seductive clutches of nicotine.

Minimum wage workers in New York City pay ungodly prices for a single pack, and some struggle to ration its contents over just three or four days. These workers are painfully aware of how unaffordable their smoking habit has become — how deeply it has cut into their slim earnings.

“So much separates the haves from the have-nots, even at the most invasive levels of the human experience; healthcare, nutrition, vernacular, and hygiene practices vary so widely from the richest to the poorest. But under the thumb of tobacco, we are all equal.”

But these are taxes on a physical malady beyond their control — a cruel joke neoliberal capitalism plays on the proletariat. The private sector creates an intractable need for an herbal poison, and the public sector punishes the resulting addicts for their dependence thereon. The working class nicotine addict is thrice pained; he endures the physical consequences of inhaling toxic fumes, he bleeds from his wages compulsory gifts to garnish the profits of Big Tobacco, and he pays vice taxes that unjustly fund the most grotesque excesses of municipal corruption under neoliberalism — from giant stadiums, to corporate tax incentives, to revitalization projects for the wealthiest neighborhoods that least need renovation.

“The working class nicotine addict is thrice pained; he endures the physical consequences of inhaling toxic fumes, he bleeds from his wages compulsory gifts to garnish the profits of Big Tobacco, and he pays vice taxes that unjustly fund the most grotesque excesses of municipal corruption under neoliberalism — from giant stadiums, to corporate tax incentives, to revitalization projects for the wealthiest neighborhoods that least need renovation.”

To wit, the economics of tobacco commerce inevitably involve a steep upward transfer of wealth. The capitalist class underpays the gentle laborer, overcharges for cigarettes and the like, packs its commodities with added nicotine to guarantee consumer loyalty, and captures the regulatory arms of the State to ensure that vice policy is written to enrich the local treasuries rather than enhance public health. The plebeian nicotine fiend is left wheezing, penniless, wrinkled, drowsy, and also stained with the odor of class war and economic violence. While the patrician smoker may resort to gums, patches, pills, and bourgeois new-age programs, the smoking poor are isolated and vulnerable in their torturous cravings. They writhe in pain and clutch the burning itch that only nic itself can properly scratch.

“We love it so much even while we hate it more than anything. We bring nicotine to our lips for long passionate kisses while it shortens our lives and dulls our appearance.”

You might surmise that I have contradictory impulses regarding tobacco. This is common among smokers; in fact, in my General Psychology textbook, tobacco addiction was unpacked to illustrate the concept of “cognitive dissonance” for novice psych students. It is the quintessential exemplar thereof. We love it so much even while we hate it more than anything. We bring nicotine to our lips for long passionate kisses while it shortens our lives and dulls our appearance. We crave it while it robs us of years we should spend with our grandchildren. We trade our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour for its subtle effects on our consciousness.

“I don’t know whether my own effort to quit smoking will succeed. But it is certain that we must find a way to crumble the power of Big Tobacco once and for all.”

I don’t know whether my own effort to quit smoking will succeed. But it is certain that we must find a way to crumble the power of Big Tobacco once and for all.

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