Sunday, August 24, 2003

Try smoking indoors in a great many places these days and, if someone sniffs the offense, you’ll soon be outdoors. The U.S. surgeon general told a House committee recently that tobacco should be banned. Senators from tobacco states — yes, from tobacco states — are now negotiating to end federal support of the crop with a buyout.

When I was growing up, it was a smoker’s world. Most men smoked. Many women smoked. And people did it everywhere, with seldom an “excuse me” or a query of whether others might mind. Anyone who was around in that era, the 1950s, knows there is a two-word phrase — light years — that sums up the distance traveled since then on the question of puff, puff, puffing away.

It may not be soon that smoking becomes more memory than reality, but who can doubt that the habit is endangered? It’s a stunning development in a way, because tobacco — its uses taught to settlers by Indians — helped build our nation. It assured survival in shaky times and gave parts of the country the economic wherewithal for greatness.

If you think that observation is a joke, you should have been with me earlier this summer when I visited the area around Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in North America. A costumed docent talked about the community’s search in its earliest days for something, anything, that could afford it financial surplus, the means not only of bare sustenance, but of expansion and prosperity and opportunity. Just about everything was tried. Just one thing worked. Tobacco.

Tobacco was that without which very little else was possible in Virginia, the Colony that gave us George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to mention just three Virginians whose leadership was crucial for the republic’s Founding.

I myself am a native of Kentucky, which boasts half the nation’s 90,000 tobacco farms. While I never had to deal with the sticky, bug-infested weed on a hot, humid day, my ancestors did, starting with Ludwig, who arrived in Kentucky from Maryland in the late 18th century, and then John, and then John’s youngest son Sylvester, and then William Henry, my grandfather. In a very real sense, I come from tobacco. It was the cash crop that kept the Ambroses going.

My father, orphaned in his early teens, strained muscles in the fields of an aunt’s farm until he graduated from high school, and then took off to work for the railroad. Many years later, I asked if he ever regretted leaving the agricultural life. He dented any romantic notions I had with a quick, “Hell, no,” explaining that the labor was backbreaking and the income as uncertain as the weather.

Although he didn’t grow tobacco as an adult, he smoked it, three packs of Camels a day, and when he was 68, he died of lung cancer. Tobacco gives economically. It takes away health. If that last fact has not always been known in the detailed, scientifically demonstrated way we know it today, it has been intuited from the earliest years of export to Europe. Expressions of delight were accompanied by loudly voiced repugnance.

I was also a smoker and experienced the way it captures you, plus the ache, the shortness of breath and the cough. The other, much rarer side is the pleasure, that moment’s deliciousness when you draw those fumes deep in your chest, hold them there for a toxic second or two and then let the blue-gray smoke curl from your lips.

Cigarettes are seductive and killers, and it’s devoutly to be hoped that they do indeed have a destiny of disuse, as I suspect. The attack on them, however, should be through honest means, not through such devices as industry-crippling lawsuits in which cancer or emphysema victims preposterously say they were duped into smoking. Self-accountable decision-making followed by self-disciplined action is preferable. The self-discipline exists. If it wasn’t for quitting, it has been pointed out, you would have almost twice as many smokers today as there actually are.

Tobacco has provided a service to this country, and even now its fall in popularity is causing economic dislocation. But it has also given us more than 400,000 premature deaths a year, and the potential dislocation is nothing compared to that.

Let the quitting continue.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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