It has been 55 years this month since the U.S. Surgeon General declared that “cigarettes may be hazardous to health.” I remember it well. I was working in the stressful world of Radio-TV sales on the fifth floor of the Seagram Building at 52nd & Park Avenue in Manhattan, and well on my way to smoking four-packs-a-day while pounding out sales promotion on my trusty IBM Selectric typewriter. I’d just snuffed out another “butt” in the huge Mexican clay ash tray on my desk that I filled to the brim each day.
As I read the article announcing the General’s remarks in the New York Herald Tribune that morning, I chuckled to myself because a bricklayer from Brooklyn was quoted, saying: “I only smoke when I’m noy-vuss (nervous), and this report makes me noy-vuss!” It didn’t make me nervous. Anyone who smoked already knew it was a health hazard. I just wished I could quit. That morning I made the decision to try again. Determined to win. Because a very bad habit was also getting very expensive at the exorbitant 1964 price of 85 cents a pack, or in my case, $3.40 a day, or $1,100 a year.
Anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking knows what a very insidious, enemy tobacco is. Anyone who has never smoked, should never tell a smoker: “You should quit.” You have no idea what it takes, and the only person in this fight who can make that declaration is the addicted. In order to attempt to do so, you have to go head-to-head with your mind, which truly is a formidable opponent which knows every trick in the book to defeat you. I knew. This would be the sixth time I went into battle against my nicotine-loving gray matter which had always won the fight in the long or short run. The trick was to out-trick that pesky enemy. But how?
One thing I knew, and that all smokers who try to quit know, is that we have a tendency to fight it on a cigarette by cigarette, day-to-day basis. “If I can just get through today without a puff, I’ll try to continue quitting tomorrow,” and so on. Problem with that approach, which your brain gleefully wants us to take, is that it causes us to think about cigarettes all day long, day after day, morning to night. Bingo. A possibility occured to me. We will trick old mind. We will tell him: “We’re not going to smoke today.” Period. “You can have a cigarette tomorrow.” That last statement is important, because neither you nor your brain have to think about cigarettes the entire rest of the day. Now, tomorrow, when Sir Brain awakens, we have a new risky, but doable, proposal. “Say, brain, I’ve been thinking about something. If we got through one full day & night yesterday, without 80 cigarettes, why don’t we try going without them for one full week?”
“Whoa, whoa, you’ve got to be kidding!” replies brain. “A whole week?” Well, why not? What do we have to lose. Let’s give it a try. Okay? “Well, alright,” grouses brain begrudgingly. Now, here’s the real trick. There is no way to fight your gray matter without a little help, and on that January morn I thought of a way, just as I was rolling a piece of blank paper into my trusty typewriter. A simple, positive, and effective way to fight the battle, kick the habit, or at least interrupt it … and hopefully win!
I took the pack of cigarettes from my shirt pocket and placed it in the center of a piece of typing paper, and carefully wrapped and folded it as if it were a Christmas present. Then secured it with two small rubber bands length-wise, and another two cross-wise. And then said to myself (and to Sir Brain), and this is important: “You may have a cigarette anytime you want it, whenever; typing, walking, driving, eating, et al. But to do so, you have to remove one rubber band at a time, unfold the wrapping carefully, remove the pack, and then the cigarette. But before lighting it, you must re-wrap the package neatly, and put each rubber band back in place.” Touche, said I. Damn, said my brain.
Think you can do that when walking, running, driving? Better still, would you even consider it? Of course not. If you would, you have a far greater addiction than my mere four-packs-a-day! Bottom-line, it worked for me. Not saying it was easy. Far from it. But the unwrap-wrap scenario worked, forcing me out of the easy habit of just pulling a cigarette from the pack to satisfy the urge. Yes, brain and I made it through a full week. After that, we put the cigarettes in a drawer. Next stop, a full month. And finally a full year. Scary long-range steps, but it worked. To wit: It has been about 19,800 days since I inhaled my last cancer stick, and I’m ever grateful that the Surgeon General spoke up in 1964. And that someone invented typing paper and rubber bands.
Perhaps you’ll come up with a better idea than mine. I hope you do. Maybe the Brooklyn brick layer did. Whatever. If it works, I’ll be very happy for you, your lungs, your heart, your overall health, and the wonderful years it will add to your life. I’m rooting for you, because I know you want to quit. But even if my plan fails to work perfectly for you, there is at least one added benefit: You’ll become much better at wrapping Xmas gifts.
Editor’s note: At the 2019 projected NYC tax increase for a pack of cigarettes, Mr. Grossman’s annual expense today, at four-packs-a-day, would now amount to approximately $18,000 … all going up in smoke.
Mel Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist.