The Need for Cigarettes


I. Why people smoke

Cigarette smoking is often portrayed, on sitcoms and in junior high school drug education classes, as something that just happens. One day the fortitude of a smoker-to-be fails, and driven by the insatiable demons inside him, he succumbs to an addiction for which he was fated from birth. But in my own case, and I suspect in most cases, the decision to start smoking is just that – a decision. With the first cigarette, the smoker’s habit is still something of a hobby, not yet complicated by the hazy issue of addiction and its effect on his (or her) psychology. He smokes that first cigarette because he wants to smoke it, and he wants to smoke because he is trying to escape from something.

Smoking is a means to an end rather than an end unto itself. The habit accomplishes nothing directly, other than a slight blackening of the lungs. Indeed, while nicotine is a drug, it often produces no noticeable psychopharmacological effect. (Although sometimes smoking can result in a subtly pleasant feeling of dizziness known as a “head rush.”) The fact of the matter is that tobacco smokers – in contrast to those who use marijuana or other drugs - do not smoke primarily to get high. Because of this fact, no one smokes only to smoke. Rather, people use tobacco in the hopes that it will bring them something else – peace of mind, perhaps, or something to do with their hands until the bus comes – and the act of smoking is simply the act of waiting for that something else.

By its nature, smoking is a behavior that changes a person’s identity. Lighting his first cigarette, a smoker casts off his old nonsmoking identity and embraces a new aspect of himself. For smokers are undeniably different from nonsmokers. They spend their money and their time differently; they interact with one another and with nonsmokers differently; they look different; they smell different; their physiology changes. Whenever someone takes up smoking, he very consciously creates a brand new version of himself.

For example, many people start smoking as a result of social pressure from their peers; that is, they smoke “because everybody else does”. Others start for exactly the opposite reason, as an act of rebellion against the social norm established by their family or friends. Each group of smokers uses that first cigarette as merely a tool for establishing a new identity. In establishing a new persona for himself, the smoker implicitly seeks to escape his old one. The conformist smoker strives to escape isolation by adopting a habit shared by others; the rebel, on the other hand, strives to escape precisely such conformist tendencies by flaunting social conventions against tobacco use.

It is an interesting fact that people have been using tobacco to escape themselves for centuries. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances describes how South American Indian “tobacco shamans” would exploit the hallucinogenic properties of extremely high nicotine doses to explore the world of spirits (Rudgley). Modern smokers take advantage of the social rather than the psychoactive properties of tobacco to seek refuge from their everyday identities, but the principle of escape is precisely the same one invoked by the shamans of old.

Let us give a name to the urge for escape that I’ve just described. We could call them the need for cigarettes, but more apt would be the need for cigarette breaks. For in fact, these are more than just the reasons why people begin smoking; they are the reasons why people smoke a particular cigarette, or more specifically, the reasons why people take cigarette breaks.

Some cigarettes are smoked to pass time, to escape from circumstances that are out of one's control (e.g. how late one is going to be for work). These are the cigarettes one sees being smoked at a bus stop or on a train platform, or outside party headquarters as the ballots are being counted after a close vote. Other cigarettes are smoked to get away from the things that are in one's control. These are the cigarettes one observes being smoked furtively behind the gym by a student before a big test, or at the side door to a frenzied kitchen by a cook at a busy restaurant.

In the abstract, the need for cigarette breaks is the need to control the flow of time. Smoking is a way to fill an unwanted, or to create a desired, temporal void in one’s existence.

At the time I started smoking, I told myself it was because of the mystery inherent in the habit. In particular, I had always been curious about the source of a smoker’s smugness. By this I mean the mysterious ability of tobacco users to shrug off almost anything that might stand between them and their nicotine fix. The smoker is deaf to the admonitions of friends and family, blind to the warnings of Surgeon Generals and public service announcements, numb to the wind and rain and snow that surround him as he huddles outside on a stoop. By smoking, I hoped to find out why this is so.

But of course this wasn’t really why I started. Although my tendency was to romanticize smoking in such a fashion, my actual reasons were the same as anybody else’s. I started smoking because I needed cigarette breaks. I began the summer before I went to college. I was essentially killing time, working as a busboy at a French bistro in order to earn some money towards my tuition and living expenses. The work was exhausting but not stimulating, and the whole summer felt like a long wait to begin a new life at university. Smoking was a way to fill the void of that wait, to occupy the giant hole in time that was the summer before college.

At the same time, the idea of “beginning a new life” weighed heavily on my mind. I was impatient for my future, and above all, I wanted to move on beyond my secondary school existence. And yet I knew that university would only bring the same intellectualism and academic environment of high school, albeit in a more intense form. Seeking refuge from this, I latched onto smoking as an avenue of escape from my previous, nonsmoking identity, as a way to take some time off from being who I had been for years, and who I would return to being in the fall.

Some are inclined to demonize tobacco smokers, but I think that the need for cigarettes –or at least for cigarette breaks – is universal. Only a few of us are unfortunate enough to try a smoke and realize that it was exactly what we needed; we become regular smokers and find ourselves saddled with nicotine addiction. But the need itself resides in each of us. The passage of time is perhaps the most inescapable aspect of human existence. Every one of us, now and then, needs to sidestep that passage.

Sometimes it is the slowness of time that becomes oppressive, and the thought of suffering a long wait in idleness is inconceivable. Upon other occasions, time seems to move too quickly and it is impossible for us to keep up; we desire merely to escape from ourselves for a short while. Ultimately, it is the universality of such desires that is the source of the “smoker’s smugness.” When a smoker is asked why he doesn’t quit when in fact cigarettes are so very bad for him, he simply shrugs it off because he knows how much he needs cigarettes and cigarette breaks. The smoker is smug in the knowledge that a nonsmoker needs these things too, even if he doesn’t quite realize it.


II. Why I enjoy cigarettes

There is much to despise about smoking, and there is no doubt but that I would quit immediately if I did not greatly enjoy my habit. What I enjoy most about it is that it amounts to a sort of meditation for me, affording me yet another form of escape from myself – specifically, escape from my mind.

I value such cigarette-induced mental escape because I saw firsthand the positive effect it can have on a smoker’s psychological state. At the bistro, that summer I started smoking, I worked with one particularly memorable waiter named Matthew, a lanky, 23-year-old philosophy major preoccupied with the ideas of Schopenhauer and the German Pessimists. Matthew used to say that the restaurant business rests upon the three chemical pillars of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. In truth, this was more of a description of Matthew’s lifestyle than of the industry as a whole. As senior member of the wait staff, he was generally the most stressed out person in the restaurant during the evening rush; his sweat glands could defeat even the strongest antiperspirants. He started his day each morning with an intravenous triple espresso. He would take five minutes out of every hour or so to chain-smoke a few Marlboros as a way of blowing off steam. And every night after work he would go out drinking with the other waiters, who told me he was the sort of guy who looked up obscure cocktails from the 1930s in hopes of stumping bartenders.

Matthew seemed to enjoy his cigarette breaks more than anyone I’ve ever known. As tensions mounted during a busy shift, he would gradually lose his temper, slowly becoming testier and testier. When things got to be too much, he would half run, half lope out to the back of the bistro behind the walk-in refrigeration unit and just sit and smoke for a while. By the end of his break, Matthew’s anger invariably evaporated completely, and when he came back inside he would be all smiles and productivity – at least for another forty-five minutes or so.

What I realized after a few weeks was that Matthew used cigarette breaks as a way to escape not only his work, but also his worries. He wasn’t simply relaxing out behind the refrigerator; he was literally clearing his mind of all its troubles. The entire phenomenon was similar the manner in which the diarist Samuel Pepys used tobacco products to ease the troubles of his own mind. In 1665, as London was erupting in the worst plague epidemic of its history, he wrote:

This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and "Lord have mercy upon us" writ there - which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself … so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell to and chaw - which took away the apprehension. (June 7, 1665)
Suddenly fraught with worry at the appearance of signs of his city’s impending doom, Pepys used nicotine in a medicinal fashion, as a rudimentary anti-anxiety agent. In much the same fashion, whenever Plague, Fire, or the Blitz was breaking out in the bistro’s kitchen, Matthew could always scurry out back “to smell to” some tobacco and forget his “apprehensions.”

Once I understood this aspect of Matthew’s smoking habit, I began to emulate him. I came to understand my cigarette breaks – both during and after work – as a form of meditation. It takes me approximately four minutes to smoke one cigarette. During the first thirty seconds I free my mind of all the things I am supposed to be thinking about as I inhale the first lungful of smoke. For the next minute or two I enjoy the outdoor air and appreciate the beauty – natural or man-made – of my surroundings. Finally, as the break draws to a close I let my mind wander, taking me where it will. By the time I take the last drag of the cigarette I am utterly relaxed and temporarily free from whatever worries or apprehensions I might have had.

What is so pleasant about the meditation of a cigarette break is that it frees me from the prison of my own thoughts, and in particular from my own rationality. John Keats wrote in one of his letters that true artistic accomplishment is to be found through what he called Negative Capability, or “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats). While I would hardly suggest myself to be capable of true artistic achievement in Keats’ eyes, the generalized notion of Negative Capability is an interesting framework with which to describe the psychological benefits of cigarette break meditation. The act of escaping from myself with a cigarette enables me to divorce my observations of the world from the manner in which they relate to myself, to separate my thoughts from their “irritable” context of rationality. In short, the freedom the meditation I find through smoking gives me a less restrained perspective of my life, which in turn permits a fuller appreciation of my experiences.

To my mind, the value of the Negative Capability derived from smoking is most palpable in the seemingly unrelated context of chess. In fact, chess is not unrelated to the question of smoking, for there is something about chess and cigarettes – or perhaps tobacco in general – that just fits.

Harvard Square is one of the few places in America that feels to me truly timeless – like one huge, geographical cigarette break from the rest of the world – and one of the reasons for this is the chess players who sit year-round at an outdoor plaza half a block from the subway. A few ancient grandmasters eke out a steady living coaxing $2 a game from tourists, meanwhile smoking pungent cigars.

But the main chess attraction of the square is something called blitz chess. This is extreme chess, restricted to 5 minutes of thinking time per player. There is no time for contemplation; the game demands intellectual rigor, sound intuition, and a hardened will. Every day Harvard Square blitz chess attracts a crowd of hotshots young and old who rotate in and out of several boards. Without fail, this crowd is engulfed in an acrid cloud of cigarette smoke. Casual spectators like myself smoke a little self-consciously, to occupy our hands while gears spin in our heads and we struggle to understand the importance of each move that is made. Hardened chessmen, in contrast, sit and chain-smoke idly, calmly waiting their turn to play.

But the most significant cigarettes are the ones smoked by whoever is playing at the time. These are cigarettes lit in contemplation, at a time when the smoker knows the next move could win or lose the game. By sacrificing precious moments on the clock to light up, the player is consciously taking a cigarette break from the game. A blitz player would only do such a thing if he believed that the meditation of the cigarette break would provide with some crucial insight into the hidden beauty of the chessboard, a glimpse into realms of play where cold rationality could not take him.

While I cannot speak for other players, I identify such insight as the product of the same Negative Capability I derive from my own meditative cigarette breaks. The pause in action created by the cigarette enables the player to stop thinking and, if he is lucky, see the essential move he had been missing. The great value of such a pause becomes evident to other spectators and myself when the player, after smoking for a few minutes, makes a move, slams the clock, and looks his opponent in the eye with the confident stare of a man whose victory is assured.

A mere amateur, it is rare that I attain moments of such clarity when I am at the chessboard myself. But it is in this kind of moment, nevertheless, that my joy in smoking cigarettes resides. A cigarette break is a way for me to press the pause button on my mind. Like Samuel Pepys or Matthew the waiter, I can find release from stress in such periods of mental escape. But even more valuable is the Negative Capability accessible via the meditative act of smoking, for this can yield genuine insight and understanding that remains even when the cigarette is gone.


III. Why I will (eventually) quit smoking

Despite the pleasures afforded me by smoking, I am all too aware of the negative aspects of the habit. In fact, although I feel that in some ways smoking is essential to my peace of mind, I am actually quite uncomfortable with my addiction. This discomfort isn’t for any of the obvious reasons. I’ve long since come to terms with the economic cost of smoking; I have enough faith in the philosophical principles behind capitalism to believe that I would quit if the benefit I derive from cigarettes wasn’t worth the price. Similarly, I am comfortable with the physical cost of smoking, the fact that each cigarette takes a few hours or days or weeks off my life. The world, I have decided, is full of tradeoffs between present and future well being, and the fact that it could kill me is insufficient reason, by itself, to forego something.

And yet something about smoking just isn’t right for me.

Part of the problem is the fact of addiction itself. My physical addiction to cigarettes is extremely limited. I smoke only about one pack of cigarettes per week, which amounts to a rather modest two or three butts per day. I can quit for days at a time and experience no physiological signs of withdrawal; I don’t get cravings or a bad temper or a nervous tic. But I do miss them, for I am mostly addicted to the ritual of smoking: the perfect cylinder that rests in my lips just so, and the kindling of flame, and the hot rush of smoke in my lungs, and especially the act of stopping to have a cigarette in the first place. It offends my sense of independence that I need anything the way I need to smoke.

Even more troublesome is the fact that smoking leads to socially painful situations. When someone sniffs, once, then twice, I know there will be trouble. There comes the inevitable question, like the clang of a fire alarm, tripped by a few stray airborne molecules of charred tobacco: “What’s that? You smoke?” Reliably, when I hear these words my face grows hot with embarrassment, and I wonder what quirk of evolutionary biology made it advantageous for people to signal their humiliation with a prominent rush of blood to their cheeks. Reddened, I grin awkwardly and stammer, “Umm, now and then… you know – yeah sometimes.” I picture myself being chased out of town by a mob of angry liberals, waving pitchforks and shouting about how bad for you cigarettes are. Then I begin to feel guilty, and I picture myself in the mob, shouting alongside the rest of them. Since to leave immediately would only compound my faux pas, I linger for a while, an affront to the delicate sensibilities of the enlightened, letting people bask in my odor. (Suddenly, it seems to permeate my clothes and hair and skin.) Eventually I contrive some excuse and take my leave. And although it would be interesting, I am too mortified to look back and try to see people’s reactions.

Such moments of social awkwardness make me reluctant to reveal my smoking habit to those who might be critical of it. This taints the purity of cigarettes, turning them into an ugly thing, a secret I must keep from friends and family. The social stigma of smoking makes my habit a burden on me, rather than a decision I made consciously; as a result, my means of escape become just another thing I need to escape from.

But even the social cost of smoking skirts the real issue. The fact of the matter is that I am not really a smoker. I started smoking to take a “cigarette break” from my previous, nonsmoking identity, and the implication of this is that someday the break will come to an end. I dislike my dependence on an external, chemical source of peace of mind, and I dislike the very tangible social stigma attached to being identified as a smoker; these things make me realize that smoking hasn’t permanently changed who I am.

When I started smoking, I thought I was escaping from something I could control - my own personality. But I realize that for a while now this has not been the case. Currently I smoke because I am waiting for my pantomime of a smoker’s existence to come to an end, for a bus to come and take me back to my real self. When it does, I will leave my pack of cigarettes behind.

Works Cited

Keats, John. Letter to George and Thomas Keats, Dec. 21(?), 1827. Excerpted in Lilia Melani, “Keats.” Jan. 2005. Online: Accessed November 2005.

Pepys, Samuel. Complete Diary of Samuel Pepys. London: George Bell & Sons, 1893. Electronic Rpt. Project Gutenberg. Online: Accessed November 2005.

Rudgley, Richard. “Tobacco.” The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances. Little, Brown, & Co., 1998. Online: Accessed November 2005.

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