Smokers acknowledge addiction, health hazard

April 21, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Yesterday, I surveyed two dozen smokers, and all of them -- and I mean every one -- said they believed cigarettes were both addictive and hazardous to their health.

Talking with them was almost frightening. Puffing steadily, many said their own doctors had warned them to stop smoking. Most said they would caution others against picking up the habit. And they all acknowledged that they were caught in the grips of an addiction they could not control.

"My brother and sister both stopped just like that," said Romaine Peterson, snapping her fingers. "But they were not smokers the way I'm a smoker. They don't smoke after a meal to make the food taste better, or while they're on the phone so that they can enjoy the conversation. They don't smoke while they're watching TV so that they can enjoy the program. They don't smoke after sex to make the sex better. Like I said, they weren't smokers. I'm a smoker."

We were downtown in front of the telephone company building on St. Paul Street, where Ms. Peterson, a C&P employee, had taken a break to enjoy her cigarette. She said her doctor had warned her that smoking was destroying her health, and she has tried to quit. Nevertheless, she runs through about two packs of cigarettes every three days.

"My problem is, I enjoy smoking, smoking calms my nerves, helps me relax and feel good," says Ms. Peterson, 43. "I've got a prescription for a [nicotine] patch right here in my purse but I'm not going to use it. My doctor says I've got hardening of the arteries -- an old folks' disease -- and he attributes it to smoking. But I'm sorry, I can't stop. I don't want to stop."

Yesterday, I spoke with smokers who said they suffered from emphysema, heart problems, shortness of breath, chronic chest colds -- and their doctors had ordered them all to stop smoking.

A parking lot attendant told me he wastes half a day's salary on cigarettes every week. A legal secretary said she gets physically ill, nauseated, whenever she has had to go more than a day without a cigarette. An elderly gentleman told me, with a chuckle, that his doctor once showed him an X-ray of his lungs.

"It's a wonder I can draw a breath," he said, puffing on a cigarette near the Charles Street entrance to the subway. "Guess I'll be dead soon enough."

I have interviewed heroin and cocaine addicts with more self-control.

Thus, I watched with interest last week while seven top executives of the nation's largest tobacco companies testified under oath that cigarettes were no more addictive or harmful than a Hostess Twinkie.

The executives had been called before California Democrat Henry A. Waxman's House subcommittee on health and the environment to answer accusations that tobacco companies actually spike cigarettes with extra nicotine to make them even more addictive. The federal Food and Drug Administration is considering declaring nicotine a dangerous drug that could be regulated or even banned.

The executives appeared before the committee surrounded by attorneys, aides and other sycophants. They wore sharply tailored dark suits and conservative-colored ties. Sometimes they seemed relaxed; at other times, annoyed.

But at all times, they faced the committee poker-faced: with eyes hard and cold; calculating and careful. If I were a nicotine addict, the sight of those seven men -- men who have grown fat and prosperous at my expense -- would be enough to make me kick the habit at once.

And the executives acknowledged last week that their companies do manipulate and control and sometimes increase the nicotine content of the cigarettes they sell. But the goal is not to stoke an addict's craving, they protested, but to maintain the consistency of flavor that cigarette smokers have come to expect.

Romaine Peterson hasn't been following the debate in Congress. It is all a game, anyway. Grandstanding. Semantics. The rich and powerful growing richer and more powerful by exploiting the weaknesses of others.

"I used to say I would quit if smoking started affecting my health," she said. "But hey! What can I do? I've been smoking since I was 9 years old."

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