November 19, 2015

slave — n.  [sleyv]  a person entirely under the domination of some influence or person

I was once a slave. My master was insidious and manipulative, the leaf of the plant Nicotiana tabacum. He came to me in the seductive form of a cigarette.

My master fooled me into thinking that our relationship would be a good thing, improving my image and increasing my social status. It was not. My master gave me the impression that it would make me cool like my film idol Jean Paul Belmondo, cigarette dangling from his lips as he swaggered through a scene. It did not. My master did not warn me of the health risks involved, of the constant coughing, the inability to run without getting winded, the potential of myriad cancers. Nor was I warned of the stains on my fingers and teeth, the stink on my breath, the burn marks on my clothes and furniture. I hesitate to even think of all the money squandered because of my master, and all for nothing.

The tools of my master were not chains and a whip but addiction, and it was a powerful tool indeed. Everyone thinks he or she is stronger; no one believes any entity, no less the brown leaf of a plant, can gain a stranglehold on our very being. But we are fools. We become easy marks for this master, willingly enslaving ourselves.

And as with all slavery, there are great profits to be made by the purveyors of the trade. The tobacco industry has countless clever lawyers and powerful government lobbies to protect these great profits. They have exerted their political influence to protect them, they have lied to protect them, they have traded any shred of moral integrity for the almighty dollar. What does the master care if the collateral damage of his trade is measured in human lives? There are always more where they came from.

Oh, and the master is wily at getting them, too. There are the advertisements that entice us with illusions of masculinity or femininity or coolness or — quite ironically — independence. We are convinced to think the fumes of burning leaves taste good or relax us. Even after the government-mandated warnings were included on the packages and the school health classes instituted their educational efforts, we are enslaved still. Even after the TV commercials showing the tortuous path to death. Even after the stories of the afflictions of relatives or friends or neighbors.

I have several stories of my own. When I was a boy, my next door neighbor Teddy, a white-haired Norwegian man, was a smoker. He had bad asthma and had to have a tracheostomy. I remember watching him sneak outside to smoke a cigarette through the opening in his throat. I wondered what kind of power would compel him to do such a thing. I learned that later for myself.

My wife’s uncle, also a smoker, developed cancer and had to have his larynx removed. For the remainder of his life, he suffered the indignity of having to croak his thoughts to others.

My own father became a slave during his army days. Those red packs of Pall Malls were a constant presence throughout my childhood. He was a man of strong will, but it took him many years to finally free himself.

Emancipation comes with great difficulty. Mine came cold turkey upon my return home from overseas. I met my parents and my wife-to-be at the airport. I smoked three packs a day, starting from the moment I woke up until one last drag before bed. I had a pack in my shirt pocket as I made my way through the arrival area. I took it out, threw it in the trash, and walked away. It wasn’t easy — I had dreams of smoking for years after, temptation at every bar at which I sat and party I attended. Each cup of coffee begged for that nicotine chaser, every anxious moment had my fingers reaching for that thin white crutch.

Since the 1970’s, the third Thursday in November has been designated as the Great American Smokeout in an annual attempt to strike another blow at this master. On this day for most of my teaching career, I tried to add my warning to the young teens sitting before me. In spite of efforts to prevent it, I knew full well that within a few years I’d probably see some of them puffing away as they walked downtown.

Some of them may be reading this right now, hopefully free of their shackles. If not, my message for them is that it’s never too late. For those former students who may now have teens of their own, be vigilant and do everything in your power to fiercely guard their freedom from that formidable master, tobacco. Take it from a former slave. It’s worth it.





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