I don’t smoke. Other than the occasional puff as a lark, I have never smoked. My parents used to smoke, three out of my four grandparents smoked, and as far as I know, my great-grandparents smoked. As far as I can tell, just about everyone smoked back in the day. Even my wife smoked for many years before we met. With all of that smoking around me, I got to wondering about why I don’t smoke.

After all, as the tobacco executive character BR says in the movie Thank You for Smoking, “We don’t sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes. And they’re cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us.”

I talked to my wife about it, and she told me that that there was a certain “cool” element to smoking. She and her smoker friends would go outside on the porch of their apartment and spend time together, smoking and talking. It was a social thing.

Things changed for my wife the day she realized that she didn’t want to be a smoker any more. So she quit. Just like that. To hear her tell it, it wasn’t that difficult for her to quit. If only it were that easy for everyone.

I have a friend who insists that every time he tries to quit smoking, he gets severe chest congestion and has trouble breathing, so he starts smoking again to relieve the symptoms.

Watching people smoke, or watching them smoke on TV or in the movies; I can’t help but notice how much they all seem to enjoy it. They absolutely relish that first puff, and I can’t help but be jealous, in a way. I’m sure that a large part of it is due to the physical addiction to nicotine, but there seems to be some comfort in just holding the cigarette in their hands. The ritual of smoking all seems so glamorous at times. I relish the first bite of an ice cream sundae, but somehow it just isn’t the same thing.

If you ask any of my siblings why they don’t smoke, they will tell you a story about my grandfather.

Carl Pierce, my mother’s father, had always been a strong and virile man. He was a milkman in the City of Worcester for many years, and he thought nothing of running up and down the stairs of triple-decker houses all day long to make his deliveries. My grandfather was a smoker, and he continued to smoke right up until just before his life was taken by emphysema.

I was too young to remember it, but my brothers and sister have vivid memories of my grandfather, the strong and virile milkman, needing a full minute of rest before he had the strength and oxygen to walk up a single step in his house.

They also remember my grandfather, short of breath and with oxygen tubes in his nose, smoking a cigarette because he just needed to have it. He died in 1973 at the age of 63. I was slightly more than a year old, and have no memory of him.

I believe it was in 1983 when I had my first, and most significant, experience with cigarettes.

My friend Jody had, with all the care of a secret agent stealing classified documents, snaked a cigarette from his mother’s purse. He showed it to me and asked me if I wanted to smoke it with him behind his shed.

This was during a period in my life when anything involving fire held great interest for me, so the fact that I would be placing a burning object into my mouth didn’t seem overly ridiculous. I grabbed a book of matches from my mother’s cabinet and rushed out to see what all the fuss was about cigarettes.

Jody and I carefully made our way behind his shed, taking pains to make sure that we hadn’t been seen. It was his cigarette, so he went first. He lit the cigarette, inhaled the smoke into his mouth, and breathed it out. He didn’t cough, and the whole thing didn’t seem like a really big deal.

It was then my turn. I took the lit cigarette from Jody and held it between my fingers and thumb of my right hand. I put the burning weed to my lips and, since I hadn’t noticed that Jody had kept the smoke in his mouth, I inhaled until the smoke filled my lungs. I didn’t have to wait long to see what it felt like because it immediately felt like


As my lungs burned in protest, I coughed and coughed and ran in a little circle behind the shed. I dropped the burning cigarette onto the dirt. I dropped onto my hands and knees and gasped for breath. I was helpless and thought, probably for the first time in my life, that I was going to die. I could not stop coughing. I would have screamed if I had enough oxygen in my lungs. My lungs burned and burned and the moment, which was probably about 10 seconds, felt like hours and hours.

Jody looked at me with fear in his eyes. I was going to have to go to the hospital and he was going to get into a ton of trouble. He had given a cigarette to the least cool person on the planet, who was now apparently going to die in the dirt behind his shed.

I didn’t die. Jody didn’t get in trouble. My lungs replaced the burning hot smoke with clean cool air and my brain made the choice that, no matter who else did it, or how cool or social it might seem, breathing hot smoke into my lungs wasn’t smart.