Cigarettes ruin your life. So why smoke? The reasons run deep.
Tobacco is one of the true vices. But are there upsides?
Humans don't make sense. Why would anyone smoke or vape? Nicotine users are shunned, shamed and sometimes fired.
For example: a city in Ohio is drug testing new city employees. For tobacco.
That's right: the city makes you pee in a cup. Test positive for nicotine, you have to get treatment. Fail a second test, you get fired.
And tobacco testing is on the rise. A county in Florida won't hire smokers. Some hospitals either. School districts in Nebraska test kids for nicotine if they want to play sports. A few schools in Arizona, too.
(Ironically, fewer cities and companies are testing for marijuana. And cannabis vapers are more welcome in public than weed vapters. Go figure.)
So folks are giving it up. Fewer people are using tobacco, at least in America.
But everywhere I go, people still light up. At concerts, at work, at barbecues. In their cars, on job sites, after sex, in the park.
Why? Why cigarettes, still?
I asked around. For the last couple weeks, any friend with a cigarette or vape pen. Why use?
"Because it's stupid," said a co-worker, vaping at her desk. "I hate it so much."
"It feels so good," said a buddy, smoking at a block party, hiding the cig behind his back so his wife wouldn't see. "There's nothing like it."
This is not science, but I found two general responses:
1. Addicts, folks whose cigs or Juuls were glued to their kissers, LOATHED it.
2. Folks who smoke irregularly, at a bar or on a porch, occasionally, and then quit, LOVED it.
There's something to that happy feeling. Tobacco was once BELOVED. By the world. By our country.
I know. I used to smoke. I loved it. Then I quit. But I got interested in tobacco again after seeing how often tobacco has cropped up in interesting places, in the hands of cool people.
It's subjective, but I've noticed that the cooler my friends are, the more likely they are to smoke. My musician and raft guiding buddies all dabble. I don't think anybody from my neighborhood association does. Which reminds me of an old Onion headline: "Secondhand smoke linked to secondhand coolness." Dave Chappelle vapes. Ed Sheeran quit. Need I say more?
For example, I like to do ayahuasca, an Amazon jungle brew that makes you trip face. It's made of two plants — no one knows how the Amazonians figured out which two species to mix, out of the millions of jungle plants. Anyway, at some ceremonies, the leader dude blows tobacco smoke on your head. It's like being in the front row of a KISS concert. (They also spit on you sometimes. Also like a KISS concert.) When I asked why, I was told the Amazonians say that the tobacco told them which two plants to mix to make the ayahuasca. A plant drug told them how to make a plant drug. Crazy stuff.
For another example, I like to rock climb. I'm not good at it, but I'm still alive. Out in Moab one day, my buddies pulled out some rapé — pronounced ra-PAY — a tobacco powder. They shove a tube in your nose and blow the stuff up your nostril. Your eyes water and you feel alive. And then — I swear — you see the holds more clearly. The mental chatter fades.
The good feeling of tobacco, it turns out, isn't imaginary. Scientists in 2010 looked at 41 double-blind, placebo-controlled lab studies using objective tests. They found nicotine or smoking has "positive effects" on motor skills, attention, response time, and memory.
No one should smoke to avoid Alzheimer's. You'll die of emphysema before you're old enough to get it. But for a half-millennia, Westerners have been using tobacco as medicine, ever since Columbus saw native Americans carrying a torch burning tobacco to — they believed — ward off disease and tiredness. The original Americans used tobacco crazy different ways: as a toothpaste (Indians — the dot Indians, not the feather Indians — still do this today); as an anesthetic for surgery; as a treatment for burns. Tobacco was long called "the holy herb."
And, yet, in more and more places, you will lose your job for using it.
I'm not trying to say tobacco's good. The downsides far, far outweigh the upsides. Tobacco has probably been responsible for more deaths than any other plant. Smoking causes three million deaths a year worldwide.
I'm just saying no drug is wholly bad. Not tobacco. Not cocaine. Not fentanyl. Not even sniffing duster or boofing DMT.
I'm saying the fanaticism for health in this country — where we decide that things are either instant death or the cure to all ails, carbs are either gold or poison — amounts to a kind of wellness facism, and it won't be long before the nurses wear jackboots.
Spitting on the tobacco plant and the folks who use it — firing them, kicking them off soccer teams — goes against human nature, which is to use plants to help ourselves, and to relax a little bit, and let people go to hell in their own way.
I'm trying. At an ayahuasca talk I was recently at, they were selling tobacco water. I bought some, and rubbed it on my skin. Didn't get me buzzed. But felt vaguely nice. In a modern world that's so bland and formless and technological you sometimes want to join the circus or go numb, the tobacco water was a nice break in the day, a bit of nature. I'll take it.