I Tried to Get Healthy and Keep Smoking Cigarettes
Does casual smoking actually work? We asked some experts to find out.
Image via Wellcome Library
It's been just over five years since I first picked up a cigarette—at a party, surrounded by people who seemed much cooler than me by dint of their smoking. Determined to fit in with my new social circle and with my new city—New York, a place where even the corpulent look interesting with a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from their lips—I started smoking socially, and eventually, regularly.
Through the years I've quit dozens of times, to no avail. This, like any addiction, is a personal struggle. If you're an addict, no amount of disappointed friend-shaming, bummer chats with parents, or losses of potential girlfriends can make you do something you're not ready to do. I get it. Cigarettes are bad. And yet, despite all that I know about cigarettes and why they're bad, I still fucking like them.
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All of which brings me to my current situation. After trying for so long to quit, only to disappointingly flip between stopping and guiltily falling off the wagon, I've found a "healthy" medium, a half-happy place where I can smoke casually. Actually casually.
It started a few months ago, when, feeling dangerously worn out for a 24-year-old, I quit smoking. I knew I wanted 2015 to be different, and I didn't want to wait until my New Year's Resolution to make it so. I joined a gym, changed my diet, and started exercising five times a week.
Since November, I've kept it up, shedding some pounds and, more important, feeling better about myself as a human being. Part of this is due to the fact that, about a month into my new routine, I decided that I was doing OK and should probably ease up on my cigarette abstinence. Maybe I could be the kind of guy who keeps a pack at work, I thought, smoking a few here and there.
Surprisingly, this worked out pretty well. I continued going to the gym and eating and sleeping well, all while sneaking a few smokes, balancing the good with the bad on a daily basis and seemingly achieving the impossible—gaming the system, being a healthy person while not being an entirely healthy person. The dichotomy also inspired a mutual motivation—if I had a good work out, I definitely deserved a smoke, and if I smoked heavily on a particular day, I definitely ate a healthy lunch.
With the devil on one shoulder and angel on the other, I felt like I'd found universal balance. Maybe I didn't have to fully quit after all. Maybe it's possible to lead a healthy life while continuing to smoke regularly. Do we not have to quit? I decided to investigate.
"It's important to first define what is meant by 'a healthy lifestyle,'" said Dr. Azure B. Thompson, the associate director of policy and research at the CASAColumbia addiction center. Thompson, an expert on the social determinants of substance abuse, said that while a healthy lifestyle is defined by eating well, being active and managing stress, "people may comply with some of these activities and believe they are leading an 'otherwise healthy lifestyle,' but by smoking cigarettes regularly you are not protecting yourself from harm." Harm, of course, being stuff like long-term lung damage and increased risk of cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, and stroke.
By smoking while living healthily, you're welcoming dangerous entrants into your body, but it's not like I was smoking a pack a day. If I am letting toxins in, at least it's not like they're waltzing in through the front door. It's more like they're sneaking in through the window I cracked. In theory, I should be able to keep doing what I'm doing so long as I don't fall back into my pack-a-day habit, right?
"I think that is a natural sentiment," Thompson countered. "With some potentially unhealthy behaviors," like eating junk food or drinking alcohol, "we are told that they are OK in moderation, but there is no way to game the harmful effects when it comes to cigarette smoking."
According to Thompson, not only am I not supposed to smoke if I want to live a healthy life, but I'm not even supposed to be near a place where smoking is happening. "Any exposure to tobacco smoke is harmful," she assured me. "Risks are not limited to heavy or long-term smokers." Still, living a totally smoke-free existence is an unrealistic ideal: if you're a social person in your 20s, you're bound to be regularly surrounded by smoking peers, and if you live in a major city, second-hand smoke is almost unavoidable.
Thompson gave me the answer I knew was coming—of course the addiction researcher is going to tell me not to be addicted! I needed input from another source, so I reached out to Jonathan Henry, a certified personal trainer. Though Henry is a kindergarten teacher who knows a bit about how to compromise with crying six-year-olds, he doesn't compromise in his night work, which is making sure people stop putzing around with their bodies and get healthy to stay that way.
"It is not possible to lead an otherwise healthy lifestyle while smoking cigarettes," he told me as soon as I brought up the question of whether or not I could lift and still smoke. "Doing so is the exact contradiction to living a healthy lifestyle," he added for clarity.
I should note here that Jonathan trained me once—when I was in my heavy-smoking phase—and nearly made me pass out by telling me to do 100 jumping jacks. Before doing the jumping jacks, I looked and felt like a normal person. "Even if an individual doesn't look out of shape due to their fast metabolism, eats well, and does some type of exercise," Henry told me, through smoking, "damage is being done to the vital organs and will eventually be visible to the individual and the world."
Jonathan went on to say that if I don't quit smoking soon, even while living my otherwise "healthy" lifestyle, my gym routine and diet would eventually fall by the wayside.
Still! I'm feeling mostly OK. I no longer struggle when I walk up a few flights of stairs. I don't have an agonizing chest cough, the sort only fellow pack-a-day smokers could relate to. And I don't smell so much like smoke that my mom winces in dismay when I hug her. Everything's fine.
Besides, sometimes I need a cigarette. Sometimes things aren't going great at work, my relationship feels more taxing than usual, or I'm just crippled with fear about getting older. You know, just normal 20-something stuff, most of which usually fades away after a smoke break. Even if it's clearly not a physically healthy activity, maybe smoking provides some sort of mental health benefits, especially for those of us who do it to relieve personal stress. I reached out for validation from Margie Cohen, a California-based psychotherapist whose ex-wife was a longtime smoker. Surely she'd understand.
"It is my job to track and respect people's choices," said Cohen, "and especially to help them understand and find new ways to manage the emotions that smoking is helping them medicate." Some of which, she said, if unchecked can create a distance between a person and the possibility of living a deeply rewarding life.
According to Cohen, smoking, like any other addictive substance, while typically mislabeled as a stress reliever, functions more so as a distraction from issues lying beneath the surface.
"It has been my experience that a person's relationship to smoking will become less compelling if they are less fearful of their feelings and of their previous traumatic experiences," said Cohen.
Cohen seemed to stand firmly beside Henry and Thompson in the belief that smoking is unequivocally bad, both mentally and physically, though she admitted that quitting—an "empowering choice that will help move a person toward greater fulfillment and happiness"—isn't something she'd push someone to do if they weren't ready.
If a person is quitting simply to "comply with social or internal pressure to 'do what's right,'" said Cohen, "it will probably not be a choice they can manage successfully, and may likely add to their stress, self-blame, shame, and low self-esteem."
So according to the experts I spoke with and common sense, it is not possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle without quitting smoking. But the very reason I started living this new life in the first place was to avoid the feelings of stress and low self-esteem Cohen mentioned above, and for the first time in my young life, I've found a footing between careful and irresponsible by forcing myself to sacrifice while allowing myself transgressions. So for now, I'd rather just keep smoking, blindly soldiering on with this unhealthy addiction no matter how painful it may be in the long run.
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