This is a smoke-free story.
It was written yesterday afternoon, under considerable strain, to mark the American Cancer Society's 14th Great American Smokeout. It took longer than usual, since even two cups of coffee, three Diet Cokes and half a bag of red licorice didn't provide the same inspiration as one Marlboro Light.
But after talking to Rita Paul during lunchtime, I decided that if she -- a veteran 14-cigarettes-a-day smoker -- could quit for 24 hours, so could I.
By the time I met her at noon, Paul was antsy but resigned. She reached into her bag and fished around for another mint, something sweet and innocuous to substitute for a Salem. But it just wasn't the same.
"I've been smoking since I was 18," said the 60-year-old secretary at North Arundel Hospital. "I have cut down drastically, but I never miss one except on this day."
Paul has participated in the Great American Smokeout for the past five years under the watchful eye of her supervisor. Kevin Murnane, the hospital's public relations director, "adopts" her during each smokeout, offering mints and moral support to keep his secretary from reaching for a cigarette.
"When I first met her, smoking was permitted in this hospital," Murnane recalled. "It would just be filled with smoke in this office, a blue haze, when I walked in."
Like most medical offices and businesses in America, North Arundel has banned smoking entirely. Paul and her smoking colleagues must stand outside the building, shivering under umbrellas in the rain, to enjoy a nicotine fix.
"Truthfully, I wish that we could have a smoking area inside the hospital," Paul said, though she admits that she's "on both sides of the fence" about clearing the air at work. "Someday, when smokers have their rights again, come and see me."
The Glen Burnie grandmother has mapped a successful strategy to survive each smokeout. She only drinks half her usual cup of coffee, to avoid lighting up at breakfast. She chews gum and keeps busy at work to avoid heading outside for her 10 a.m. cigarette break. And she munches carrot sticks to skip her evening smokes.
Paul is a perfect target of the federal government's latest anti-smoking campaign. Aimed at the hard-core smoker, the new "It's Never Too Late to Quit" program is trying to reach the more than 20 million smokers over age 50.
But while she sticks with the smokeout, Paul always reaches for a Salem the next morning. Hooked on nicotine, she said she's just not ready to quit.
"I'm not trying to lie about it or fool anybody," she said. "I do try to do it for myself for this one day, but I don't think I'm gonna stop."
North Arundel Hospital, which also provided free blood-pressure and pulmonary screenings, was one of many companies in the area to offer adopt-a-smoker programs yesterday.
Public schools and other businesses also gave away buttons, stickers and smoking cessation survival kits donated by the American Cancer Society.
Companies that participated in the smokeout included: the county Health Department, Columbia Freestate Health Systems, C&P Telephone, Westinghouse and the Naval Medical Clinic.
The Great American Smokeout, the third Thursday of each November, usually leads about 35 percent of the nation's 50 million smokers to quit for at least that day. Last year, the cancer society found that about 3.9 million smokers still had not reached for a cigarette up to three days later.
Despite the strong participation, many smokers in Anne Arundel County ignored the campaign and puffed away yesterday.
Thomas Sulter, a Glen Burnie plumber who stopped at a 7-Eleven to buy a pack of Winstons yesterday, laughed at the thought of joining the smokeout.
"Why?" he wondered. "I'd just end up smoking twice as many tomorrow."
Dragging deeply on her cigarette, Anne Martin, an employee of Financial Management Services in Pasadena, shook her head when asked about the smokeout.
"I heard about it, I knew about it, and I decided not to participate," she said firmly.
When asked why, she said: "I don't want to quit. And if I did quit smoking for a day, we'd have to have a smokeout area at work, or everyone would be going crazy with me around."
My co-workers were probably saying the same thing as I finished off my first smoke-free story in four years. It may well be the last.