Ashes to Ashes

To Quit or Not to Quit for Lent

In years past, I've had a hard time observing Lent. As a Catholic, I always wanted to be truly penitential. Unfortunately, this was difficult to do without any real vices. Once the penitential ashes from Ash Wednesday wore away, I was relegated to avoiding chocolate to demonstrate my piety. So I was delighted to acquire a bonafide vice at Harvard: cigarettes.

As I prepared myself to foreswear cigarette ash on Ash Wednesday, I looked forward to regaining some respect. I started smoking while working as a doorman over the summer. A sandwich and two cigarettes made for the ideal half-hour break. So, as a smoker for the last eight months, I grew used to hearing my habit reviled as "filthy." Even worse, while I walked across the Yard, some of my fellow students would feign coughs near me. Since the dangers of second-hand smoke don't extend to wide open spaces, I understood that they were simply passing judgment on me, a walking carcinogen. At least during Lent, I wouldn't be a pariah.

On February 23, two days before Lent, a letter in The Crimson tested my resolve to quit. Brian O'Meara '01 felt compelled to criticize the Undergraduate Council for giving cigars to freshmen who attended the First Year Formal. Citing the possible illegality of the act (not everyone was 18), the universally known fact that cigars are carcinogenic, and the unpleasantness of a smoke-filled ballroom, he urged the Undergraduate Council to refrain from advocating tobacco products. Smoking has become so taboo that even the celebratory cigar meets with indignation. Proud Papas had best content themselves with a stick of Wrigleys.

This diatribe against smoking made me want to light up, to be an iconoclast. But I followed through on my resolution to quit, feeling pangs of solidarity with the smokers I left behind.

Smoking, though ostensibly legal, is routinely vilified and its practitioners persecuted. While the letter was correct to note that one must be 18 to smoke, it failed to point out that one must appear to be 27 to purchase cigarettes without presenting identification. Since most underage smokers likely know someone 18 or older, it's doubtful that this law prevents many of them from smoking. Instead, it serves to inconvenience legal smokers, subjecting them to unnecessary scrutiny.


It seems perverse that a 13 year-old can buy condoms without incident at CVS while a third year law student must be carded before getting a pack of Marlboros. While pubescent kids are given free reign over their sexual morality, a grad student's personal decision to smoke is continuously punished.

Similarly, anti-smoking crusaders have taken valid findings of the danger of secondhand smoke and stretched them to ludicrous lengths. While I can understand prohibiting smoking in restaurants and on airplanes, prohibition has extended into the domain of the smoker. I've had a cigarette wrested from my hand by an usher in the Yankee Stadium bleachers. Lest one unfamiliar with baseball lecture me on my fellow fans' (perhaps even the right fielder's) right to enjoy the game without the danger of secondhand smoke, allow me to assure you that anyone with any interest in his health solicitously avoids the Yankee bleachers.

When smokers' rights are curtailed in traditional smoking havens, from baseball bleachers to California bars, the opponents of smoking are no longer invoking concerns for their own health. Rather, they have adopted an unnerving paternalism. Smoking, to them, is a dangerous, disgusting life choice; so they presumptuously erect barriers against it for others.

The danger in this campaign--even for non-smokers--is that it asserts that the healthiest lifestyle is the only viable one. Should it be found that active smokers tend to live longer than sedentary non-smokers, our treasured liberty to do nothing may go the way of our liberty to smoke. Televisions could join alcohol and cigarettes by getting their very own "sin" tax. One American icon, the couch potato, might join another, the Marlboro Man, as a target of paternalism.

It's been two weeks since my last cigarette. If I ever smoke again, it won't be to kill myself or to deal with a "nic fit." It will be to affirm my right to do so in the face of big brother's criticism. It will be to validate a fraternity in which "bumming" a cigarette is acceptable in a way that no non-smoker could understand. (Have you ever bummed a french fry from a passerby?)

Of course, should I return to smoking, someone will tell me of the harms and undoubtedly mention his concern for my health. I will thank him and hope that he finds some solace in the benefits he derives from the exorbitant taxes on cigarettes. By that time, the president's proposed $1.50 per pack federal tax will likely be law.

Although the tax might be financially crippling, the irony would be priceless: our most ambitious crusader against cigarettes would be relying on smokers to help finance his ambitious plans.

That's in the future. Right now I'm following the quitter's credo, taking one day at a time. Should I lapse, I have my excuse all planned. Lent will not be lost. As one of my TF's suggested last term when I told him of my intention to quit, if I indulge in cigarettes during Lent, I'll simply be giving up the pleasure of self-denial.

David F. Browne '01 is a government concentrator in Wigglesworth Hall.

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