Danger or delight: Smokers offer two views of a habit Experience: Despite cancer, Hank Staab says, "I won't throw the cigars away. One day I might go back to smoking them."

January 13, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF

Green dots mark forever the skin where radiation lens once targeted a malignancy in Hank Staab's throat. His taste buds have been all but destroyed. And at the age of 77, he keeps a water bottle by his side at all times to irrigate a throat parched from the absence of saliva.

A ruddy complexion and an unruly fuzz of orange hair distinguish Harvey Goldstock's mien. Insisting he's a specimen of robust health, the 68-year-old man runs a linen rental business with more than 100 employees, hunts and fishes four times a year and plays tennis and racquetball twice a week.

Staab and Goldstock have lived vastly different lives in Baltimore. Yet they have in common cigar smoking, a habit shared by legions who have been swept up in the cigar boom of the 1990s.

In divergent ways, they have come to terms with a lifetime of smoking - one narrowly escaping death hastened largely by tobacco use, the other convinced that cigars have done nothing to hinder his health.

It seemed innocent enough for both men at first. When Staab began smoking in 1942, he was a 22-year-old engineer at a General Electric plant in South Baltimore, entering manhood and following in the footsteps of his father, also a cigar smoker.

Goldstock's motives were more practical. He began smoking cigars when he was 19 to help his poker game at the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity at Dartmouth College. "With a cigar," he says, "I was able to keep a poker face, and it paid off handsomely."

Both men, like many others being introduced to cigars today, gave little, if any, thought to the potential risks of the habit. "It never occurred to me," Staab says, "not once."

Not until five years ago. He began to feel as if something were caught in his throat. A biopsy confirmed the worst: He had cancer of the larynx, which doctors largely attributed to 50 years of consuming cigars.

Before he announced the bad news at the kitchen table, his wife, Doris, knew something was wrong. They sat in silence. Overcome, Staab could not focus his thoughts - though he wondered, how long do I have to live?

Twice a day, for 26 days, he drove 36 miles round trip on wintry roads for radiation treatment that would remove some of his facial hair permanently, make food taste like straw and shed 30 pounds off his 5-foot-7-inch frame.

With his cancer in remission, Staab doesn't smoke anymore. But he still keeps a half-dozen cigars in his cherry wood humidor, prominently displayed on an inlaid pecan table in his dining room in Catonsville.

"I won't throw the cigars away," he says. "One day I might go back to smoking them."

Casting a withering look in Staab's direction, Doris, a former cigarette smoker, retorts, "I hope he's got better sense."

He tries to explain: "If I knew I had a very limited amount of life left, I would go back to smoking cigars again."

Doris sighs deeply.

Still, Staab maintains, "I wasn't addicted to them."

Neither is Goldstock - or so he says, a maduro in his left hand: "I can go without smoking."

He buys in bulk - four bundles of Honduran Don Mateo No. 10s totaling 100 cigars about every two weeks. For 38 years, he smoked 10 cigars a day; since his doctor ordered him to cut down about a decade ago, he has smoked five cigars a day. What he lost in quantity, however, he has made up for in size and thickness: He replaced his 6-inch, 46-ring gauge cigar with a 7-inch, 50-ring gauge giant.

Goldstock's only other accommodation to his cigar habit is a custom-made ozone generator about the size of a breadbox in his office to help clear the smoke.

Otherwise, he says resolutely, "I don't even give it a second thought. I don't inhale these things. I think that reduces the dangers. It is my opinion that every human being is different. It's your hereditary makeup that prevents you from having problems. Any foreign substance is potentially dangerous, whether it's cigars, or pipes, or the air we breathe."

He doesn't suffer from a shortness of breath. He runs the competition on the tennis courts into the ground. But he does possess an occasional hacking cough. And for all his laissez-faire attitude, Goldstock remains careful, in his own way, about his health. "As you get older," he says, "you get a little closer to your maker."

Once a year, he goes in for a head and throat examination at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He doesn't believe the bladder cancer excised about six years ago was connected to his smoking. His doctors believe otherwise.

"I've been smoking for so many years," he says, "with no apparent ill effect."

Staab, too, always believed he was immune from the ill effects of smoking.

"My theory was, if you didn't inhale, you'd be very limited with the possibility of lung cancer," he says. "Well, obviously I was wrong. You don't have to have lung cancer; you can get cancer in other parts of the body. I got cancer of the larynx."

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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