Manners & Misdemeanors
Why Do People Smoke?
There is no other way to quit than by cold turkey, but meddlers beware: Smoking is a personal issue.
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons
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Smoking was not for sissies like me, who had always lived on the safe side of college, when apparently the habit usually started. Not that I wasn’t a joiner. While I didn’t feel left out as classmates stole puffs on the rooftops or in the bathrooms—I was glad in fact not to have been invited—I was good for safer adventures.

I observed that smoking gave my classmates a sense of sophistication and confidence, which to me was merely illusory. I don’t know whether that view of smoking had to do with my having traveled abroad right after high school to take a preparatory course for college, and coming home two years later an older freshman than most. At any rate, growing up had ceased by then to be an issue for me.

But smoking was, and would continue to be, an issue, and a personal one since I’d be living with smokers all my life. I didn’t fully understand what jollies one got from puffing on those sticks that offset the effect of smelling like ashtrays—not to mention decidedly endangering one’s health and that of others (although that scientific point was not taken into account until later).

Mom would cite the saying that one tends to end up marrying someone with precisely the habit one hates most—in my case, she threatened, “a cigar smoker.” Sure enough, both of the men I married were smokers, though only of cigarettes. I quit the first smoker and the second quit smoking.

I had my own mix of reasons for my aversion to smoking, and they did not exclude certain vanities and banalities. Smokers in my circle were usually girls who were good at sports and driving, two things I considered threats to my life and nails. They struck matches and flicked lighters with such aplomb. I didn’t tell them, but it also seemed their gums were taking on the color of dead blood and their lips only a shade lighter. But again that impression could have been my biased imagination.

My aversion turned to mania when my own mother started smoking. I observed her once sweet voice deepen until she sounded more macho than my dad, who was a natural soprano. On the phone, callers would mistake one for the other. I inherited my dad’s voice, although I could come down a pitch or two from my natural falsetto to the relief of my listening public. Some smoking would have helped me, but, like the true granddaughter of my grandmother, with whom I grew up, I did not at all see the gracia in smoking.


My mom used to smell like the jasmine she put in her hair, but when she became a smoker, her scent was overpowered by the smell of cigarette smoke. When I complained that smoke brought tears to my eyes and clogged my nostrils, Mom would cite the saying that one tends to end up marrying someone with precisely the habit one hates most—in my case, she threatened, “a cigar smoker.” Sure enough, both of the men I married were smokers, though only of cigarettes. I quit the first smoker and the second quit smoking.

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As it turned out, all that quitting was little consolation, for my own children took up the habit themselves. I couldn’t put the blame entirely on peer pressure since their own father smoked. When I asked what got them started they all said it was curiosity, and smoking made them feel “relaxed and confident.” But they did not discount a teenage desire to look “cool”—the modern-day description, I suppose, of what my own classmates must have felt.

Still, no one mentioned nicotine, the culprit substance itself, which gives the smoker that good feeling. In fact it had been played down or kept out of the issue altogether until the habit became an addiction and, for cigarette makers, indecently profitable.

My own children took up the habit themselves. I couldn’t put the blame entirely on peer pressure since their own father smoked. When I asked what got them started they all said it was curiosity, and smoking made them feel “relaxed and confident.”

Some of the consequences of long-term smoking are quite horrible. A graphic one that automatically comes to mind is pyorrhea, the gum disease that causes bad breath and eventually leads to a completely toothless life. The prospect should be scary enough, particularly for female smokers, but they’d rather go on smoking and become toothless than stop and become overweight. I wonder whether a debunking of the myth would change their minds. Time magazine has reported, quoting the Daily Beast:

“…For all of the women who use food fears as another excuse to not stop [smoking], the cruel irony is that many long-term female smokers tend to ultimately gain weight as a result of their habit.”

Anyway, sooner or later smokers face their problem squarely; they acknowledge their dependence on nicotine and decide to quit smoking—cold turkey or with the help of nicotine patches, nicotine gum, or injections. Not only have cigarette filters been found of insignificant help, they, in fact, make one smoke more often.


Most of those who have succeeded in quitting, like my husband (“The simple trick,” he says, “is to quit again and again until you’ve got it licked”) and all my three sons, swear by no other way than cold turkey. Interestingly, it’s my daughter, a teacher and mother of three, who has held out. She promises, however, to stop when she turns fifty, which is next year, and bets she can do it.

Not only have cigarette filters been found of insignificant help, they, in fact, make one smoke more often.

Fifty may be just a random number to others, but not to her, she says. Indeed, she is normally quite firm and deliberate, and has precisely been able to refrain from smoking when her job demands that she do so—she has not smoked on campus and certainly not in the classroom—and also out of consideration for non-smokers around her. She also was able to stop through all nine months of each pregnancy and the succeeding few months of breastfeeding. Following her doctor’s orders, she quit a week before her recent hysterectomy and through the next two months. Obviously she considers smoking the least evil of vices and even extols the benefits she thinks she derives from it. But the day she discovered cigarette butts in her son’s toilet she was deeply bothered.

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“So why were you upset?” I asked.

“I was really more disappointed than upset. I didn’t think he was the type. He seemed too health-conscious and vain,” she replied.

Her husband, a longtime smoker himself, reacted more decisively. In an attempt, I suppose, to regain his moral authority, he quit cold turkey, then dealt (successfully, I’m told) with his son. Like all beginners, the boy was probably just experimenting and felt peer pressure.

I myself don’t believe in telling people to quit, because if they’re anything like me, it likely won’t work. I only have to think of how, for instance, I can’t do without coffee—surely I drink more of it than the healthy amount. Also, unsolicited advice tends more likely to be resented than heeded.

It’s hard enough to quit smoking without meddlers, but it can be done. My mom, who I thought could never quit, did so at sixty, but there had not been time enough to avoid emphysema, which was detected some time later. When she confronted her doctor for an explanation, he said, “We did put out the fire but the house had already been burned.”


A tragic case was B, a friend since we were nine. She was the only smoker I know who not only never tried to quit but seemed even proud not to have done so. Her mother accused her of loving cigarettes more than her or anybody else, but particularly her, because she had a serious heart condition and could not risk being in her smoking daughter’s presence. B couldn’t even promise her mother that little loving break.

Smoking was ruining my friend’s own health, but it seemed to me that it also provided her with a coping mechanism for past hurts. Knowing what I knew, I couldn’t ask her to stop. The time came when she no longer had a choice or the physical strength to deal with anything. She died at sixty-six, the first of my college gang to go, a year ahead of my own 85-year-old mother.


Our former president is a somewhat comparable case, but surely an easier one. He too has gone through more trials than many of us in our lifetime. He was only twelve when his father was thrown in prison, and only twenty-three when his father, returning home from a brief taste of freedom in exile with his family, was murdered. An only son, he had to prematurely step in as family protector. He also took a bullet during one of the coups mounted against his mother’s presidency and only last year lost her to cancer. He has since risen to his destiny, inheriting a country from an administration that has left a trail of scandals and didn’t stop planting political mines in its wake until her very last moment in the presidency.

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Surely, Noynoy Aquino had every reason to light up a stick. I myself would give him a break. In fact, as any other smoking guest, he will find a place to smoke—a glassed-in veranda—and a smokeless ashtray in my home.

If there is one person from whom any advice about smoking might be appropriate, it would be his fellow former president, Barack Obama, who has quit smoking. But Mr. Aquino said Mr. Obama himself offered no advice then, only this: “At the time you decide to quit I’ll send the advice.”

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Chit Roces
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