Quittin' Time

I was returning to the Independent office in Kalispell after looking into a news story in Ronan, the engine of my trusty old station wagon winding it out on a sunny September afternoon, when I saw it: a large billboard to the side of Highway 93 advertising the Montana Tobacco Quit Line.

Next to a 1-888 number was a picture of an ashtray full of extinguished cigarettes. As the miles passed, I thought a lot about that billboard, having decided to quit smoking – which had been among my favorite activities for the past seven years – on Aug. 30. What kept that billboard churning through my mind was not the phone number, nor thoughts of whether I might call it. Instead, I recalled the sign's drab ashtray and thought, "Man, it looked like they hardly even smoked some of those cigarettes. What a waste."

Such is the excruciating logic of the struggling ex-smoker.

I should have sensed that smoking would pose a problem for me. As bad omens go, check this one out: The very first time I ever smoked a cigarette, my mother caught me red-handed. In retrospect, it wasn't the brightest move on my part. I had taken one of my father's Carltons into my room. The problem is that my room was in the basement. There was only one window, offering little ventilation. As fate would have it, my mother returned home from work early and came down to the basement to say hello as I was about halfway through my first smoke. I did my best to hastily extinguish the cigarette in an ashtray, covering that ashtray with a nearby book.

It was no use. Aside from the fact that the room reeked of cigarette, there was a curious waft of smoke coming from underneath my copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

"Have you been smoking?" my mother asked.

I considered my options, which were either admitting that I had indeed been smoking or trying to convince her that Ken Kesey's prose was so hot it literally set pages afire.

"Uh...no?"

In the end, I told her that I wasn't particularly enjoying the cigarette anyhow, and that I didn't plan to smoke ever again. Of course, some plans change.

Now, eight years and more than 10,000 cigarettes later, I pulled my station wagon into the driveway of my Whitefish apartment with that Quit Line billboard still in my head. For the past two weeks I had essentially quit smoking, except for one relapse night when I was drinking with some acquaintances in the bars of Bigfork. Every day was a struggle between the forces of smoking and nonsmoking, and I had even divided myself into two split personalities: Smoker Mike and Nonsmoker Mike. Smoker Mike would think things like, "One cigarette isn't going to make much difference." Then Nonsmoker Mike would retort, often aloud, "You're not getting a cigarette, you bastard."

This worked well for the most part, with the exception of that one morning on my walk to the office when I told myself, "You're not getting a cigarette, you bastard," without realizing that a middle-aged man was walking within earshot behind me. He tried not to look at me as he hurried past the crazy guy who was talking to himself.

But now I was home. I let the sadly alluring ashtray billboard slip out of my mind, and as I heated some macaroni in a pot of boiling water for a belated dinner, I turned on one of the two television stations I can receive to watch a bit of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. During a commercial break, NBC cut to one of those "The More You Know" public service announcements. In this one, a blonde actress from some television program I've never seen looked into the camera and said, "There's one way to quit smoking that works every time."

There was a pause for dramatic effect, allowing me enough time to wonder, What is it? Please tell me. I'm drowning here!

"Don't start," she concluded, just before the "The More You Know" logo swept across the screen.

You bitch!

OK, that may be a bit harsh, but if the ad was aimed at stopping kids from starting in the first place, they could have framed it that way, rather than raising the hopes of those like myself.

NBC wasn't going to save me. Desperate, the next day I turned to the Montana Tobacco Quit Line or, should I say, the "Montana" Tobacco Quit Line, since I found out that the phone worker I spoke with was actually located in a respiratory hospital in Denver, Colo.

Sitting in the Independent's Kalispell office, overlooking Main Street, I played percussion with reckless abandon on my desk as I listened to the Quit Line's automated attendant. I used to do this all the time back in grade school – engage in spontaneous percussion, that is – and I sometimes wonder if maybe I started smoking simply to have something less toddler-like to do with my hands. Even as I held the phone receiver with one hand, my other was constantly in motion, like Def Leppard's famed one-armed drummer, turning a computer screen into a cymbal and a keypad into a high hat. None of this would be happening if I could just smoke one cigarette, but instead I listened to the recording.

"This call may be monitored for quality assurance. To listen to information about tobacco use and Native Americans, please press 1. To speak with a Quit Line counselor, please press 2."

I pressed 2.

Within a minute, I was speaking with a young woman who, at 24, was just a year younger than myself. Her name was Christine. In real life, I'm sure Christine is a delightful young woman. But over the phone, in the midst of my nicotine tantrum, her chipper positivity was almost oppressive. It wasn't her fault, but the struggling ex-smoker has an easier time singing along to "Anarchy in the U.K." than to "Free to be You and Me," if you know what I mean. I didn't need a cozy support cushion to keep me from lighting up again. I needed a psychotic ex-Marine drill sergeant who'd been dishonorably discharged for shaving off the eyebrows of new recruits who couldn't quite run a six-minute mile.

Nonetheless, I'd come this far, so I told Christine my story – that I had basically quit, but that when I had a couple beers at a bar I still allowed myself to smoke because, I told her, I find the thought that I'm never going to have a cigarette again for the rest of my life kind of intimidating.

"Yeah, that is kind of scary," Christine said, "But you sound like a strapping young guy, so you can do it."

What? Was Christine flirting with me over the "Montana" Quit Line?

I decided to ask Christine if she'd ever smoked, and she said that she had, but had quit five years ago. I considered this a good sign, figuring she would know where I was coming from. Then she said, "When you smoke, you stimulate something in your brain called the reward pathway. So your brain thinks it's something good, even though it's something bad. It's like if you drink gasoline, you know it's bad for you, but you don't have that reward pathway saying the gasoline is good for you, you know?"

No, I didn't know, and now I was wondering if maybe I wouldn't be so bad off after all if I went back to smoking. At least I wasn't chugging gasoline.

Things didn't get much better from there. I asked Christine if she thought I could eventually phase out smoking while still engaging in a cigarette or two when drinking. I was kind of hoping for a yes-or-no answer, but instead she told me that if I was going to smoke in bars, I should at least buy generic cigarettes like GPCs.

"If you were to go buy a pack of GPCs, that's not something you're going to pull out in a bar and be like, 'Yeah, I'm a big smoker with my GPCs.'"

This time I just came out and said it: "I have no idea what you mean by that."

"Just that it's not considered a nice cigarette."

Apparently Christine's five years away from the world of professional smoking had put her out of touch, because to the recent quitter, any cigarette is a "nice cigarette." A stranger could offer me a pack of Fecal Matter brand cigarettes and I'd be tempted.

This wasn't working out. NBC couldn't save me, and neither could the "Montana" Quit Line. I was going to have to do this myself. Before I hung up, I asked Christine if she had any parting advice. She told me that some quitters find it helpful to do research on tobacco. This I could do. I am a reporter, after all.

Lawyers, Smokes And Money

One doesn't need to dig deep to find that tobacco use is a huge issue in both the United States and Montana. On the national level, opening arguments in a federal lawsuit against large tobacco companies began on Sept. 22. The government will argue that big tobacco markets to children and has deceived consumers about the dangers of smoking. If the government wins the case, tobacco companies could be forced to pony up $280 billion, possibly sending them into bankruptcy.

In Montana, voters will be asked to give their collective "yea" or "nay" to Initiative 149, assuming the Supreme Court doesn't step in at the last minute and remove the ballot measure at the urging of the anti-tobacco-tax group known as Veterans, Taxpayers, Montanans and Tobacco Retailers, Wholesalers and Manufacturers Against I-149. The initiative would more than double the tax on a pack of cigarettes, from 70 cents to $1.70, and increase the tax on chewing tobacco from 35 cents to 85 cents. Other tobacco products would undergo a tax increase from 25 to 50 percent of their wholesale prices.

The initiative is sponsored by more than 20 statewide groups – including the AARP, the American Cancer Society and the Montana Nurses' Association – under the umbrella of Healthy Kids Healthy Montana. A similar initiative, I-115, which would have raised the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 25 cents, was proposed on the 1990 Montana ballot, but anti-tobacco-tax interests were able to defeat the initiative by a 59 to 41 percent margin, in part by drawing on approximately $1.5 million in advocacy money from tobacco corporations during the election cycle, according to the National Voting Rights Institute, a nonpartisan campaign finance legal center.

Perhaps surprisingly, this time around big tobacco isn't flooding Montana with advocacy money. According to campaign reports filed in early September, the anti-tobacco-tax group had raised only $100, in comparison to Healthy Kids Healthy Montana's $75,625. This may be in part due to the perception that if I-149 makes it onto the ballot, it will likely pass.

Both gubernatorial candidates have endorsed the initiative, and a recent Lee Newspapers poll found that 59 percent of likely voters would vote in favor of I-149, raising the tobacco tax to generate money for programs such as health care, while only 30 percent would vote against it. With such numbers, it's no wonder that opponents have funneled their dollars not toward an ad campaign, but toward lawyers to try to keep the measure off the ballot in the first place, says C.B. Pearson, campaign manger for Healthy Kids Healthy Montana.

Meanwhile, the anti-tobacco-tax group has hired attorney Kati Kintli to represent the interests of tobacco wholesalers and convenience store owners. Kintli argued before District Judge Dorothy McCarter of Helena this summer that the ballot measure would allocate state money – a job reserved for the Legislature – and that it addressed multiple subjects, which would make it unconstitutional.

I-149 advocates dismiss the legislative authority charge as unfounded, given that even in 2002 when voters passed I-146, which earmarked $18 million of the state's annual $30 million tobacco lawsuit money for tobacco prevention and children's insurance, the Legislature circumvented the initiative by passing a bill allowing legislators to spend the $30 million as they saw fit in order to grapple with the state's budget woes.

Ultimately, Judge McCarter ruled on Aug. 31 that the new tobacco tax initiative was constitutional and could therefore remain on the ballot. Kintli is now appealing to the Montana Supreme Court, but Pearson says it's unlikely that the court will overturn the district judge, particularly since the high court has already decided not to get involved with another current ballot initiative, I-147, on cyanide mining.

Repeated calls to Kintli were not returned as of press time. Kristin Page Nei, director of state government relations with the American Cancer Society in Missoula, says that if I-149 passes, it will save money on health care costs and cut down on smoking.

"For every 10 percent you raise the price of a pack, you see up to a 7 percent reduction in youth consumption," Nei says.

Nei has helped to organize the pro-I-149 campaign of Healthy Kids Healthy Montana, and the group optimistically estimates that if the tax is passed, aside from just discouraging possible youth smokers, 6,400 adult smokers in Montana will quit.

Whatever the ballot outcome, tobacco is likely to remain a contentious and recurring issue in Montana politics. For starters, it's costing the state $216 million annually in health care costs, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Also, it's impossible to deny that tobacco is taking its toll on the state's citizens. According to the Governor's Advisory Council on Tobacco Youth Prevention, about four people die from tobacco-related disease in Montana daily, making it the No. 1 cause of preventable death and disease in the state (the same holds true for the country). "More people die of tobacco-related diseases than from alcohol, motor vehicle accidents, suicides, AIDS, homicides, illegal drugs and fires combined," the council writes in its strategic five-year plan.

In addition to increased risks of cancer, emphysema and heart disease, smoking carries with it the risk of impotence for men and birth irregularities for women with children. And secondhand smoke significantly harms non-smokers in several ways, some of which are only recently coming to light; a new Helena case study published in the British Medical Journal this year found that the numbers of patients going to the local hospital for acute myocardial infarction (heart disease caused by decreased blood flow) dropped significantly during the six months in which Helena's now-repealed smoking ban was in effect.

So smoking cigarettes is bad for you. Not exactly a news flash. Many more people know these facts now than in the "bad old days" when cigarettes were advertised as healthy.

My grandmother, Millie Feldman, did not know these facts when she began smoking. Millie was a poster child for smoking, and later for quitting. She smoked steadily for more than 60 years, this eternally tan Florida retiree, her skin as wrinkled and adorable as a prune's. She spent many long summer hours on the back porch of the house where I grew up, and when I was at school and my parents were at work, her company was Cuddles, the neighbors' Lhasa Apso, a "summer read" romance and a pack of Kents. She seemed content.

In her early 80s, she asked a doctor if she should quit. The doctor asked how long she'd been smoking, and when she told him, he responded that quitting would probably be too much of a shock to her system. But later, another doctor told her that she should quit – had to, in fact – because she had emphysema. Incredibly, my grandmother quit before completing her seventh decade of smoking. Toward the end, her lungs were so bad that she couldn't even sleep lying down. I saw all this, and yet I embarked on the smoker's path. Why? Was I a masochist?

This Smoker's Life

I was hoping to find an answer in statistics, so I went to see E.B. Eislein of Kalispell's A&A Research. Eislein, whose pony-tailed gray hair seems more fitting for a roadie than a statistician, has just completed a study of smoking in Flathead County and has drawn some unexpected conclusions that I hoped would shed some light on my own situation.

"What I've concluded is that smoking is part of a lifestyle that includes drinking alcohol, not wearing seatbelts and not eating breakfast," Eislein says.

In addition, Eislein found that smokers are less likely to drink two glasses of water a day, less likely to eat two or more helpings of fruits or vegetables in a day, more likely to watch TV and less likely to ride a bicycle.

I began to wonder about this crowd. Years ago, I officially tossed myself into their midst when I checked the smoker box on my college dorm room application sheet. At the time, I actually smoked only occasionally, but I figured that my chances of having the coolest possible roommates would be increased that way; I had fallen victim to the popular mythology that smokers are "cool." (For the record, the coolest people I met at college were nonsmokers.)

Now, years later, I come to find that the ship on which I've set sail is manned by TV-watching, safety-shunning, fruit-abstaining, water-hating losers. Worse yet, I was one of them. Maybe I don't watch much TV and maybe I wear a seatbelt, but I definitely do skimp on the vegetables, unless French fries count. Most of my water intake comes from whatever is absorbed in the pasta when I boil up some Annie's macaroni and cheese, and I think the last time I actually made myself a proper breakfast in the morning was at the start of the Gulf War. The first one.

Nonetheless, there is an unspoken bond that is formed when you and another share a common vice, and consequently I've had some great conversations with smokers over the last seven years that I wouldn't trade for a new pair of lungs. Without being a smoker, I might never have befriended that homeless man in Manhattan who could recite Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" from beginning to end. I never would have bonded with that helicopter logger in the Yaak who taught me that beer and guns mix just fine, as long as you're not really drunk. Some of the best conversations I've had with my parents have taken place over a smoke.

It might sound like I'm trying to defend smoking, and in a way I am, even though I've quit. You see, what most anti-smoking crusaders fail to acknowledge – and what ultimately hurts their credibility in the world of smokerdom – is that even though smoking can kill a person, it does have its good points. The matter isn't black and white, but gray as ash.

A New Tobacco Way

"This call may be monitored for quality assurance," the automated attendant at the "Montana" Tobacco Quit Line said into my phone receiver. "To listen to information about tobacco use and Native Americans, please press 1. To speak with a Quit Line counselor, please press 2."

This time, I pressed 1 and heard a different recording.

"A basic understanding from which we can start our dialogue is that tobacco can both give life and take life...Of all the contributions Native Americans have given the world, tobacco is probably the best known. However, when most people think of tobacco today, they don't consider the depths of its story, or the unique role this powerful plant has had throughout our story."

My curiosity was aroused, and so a few days later, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the unique relationship between American Indians and tobacco.

On Sept. 25 I sat in a conference room in Big Mountain's Outpost Building in Whitefish while Lawrence Shorty, a member of the Navajo Nation and a tobacco prevention coordinator at the University of North Carolina, held up a large, yellowish-orange leaf.

"What has been done to our sacred plant?" Shorty asked an audience of about 100 American Indian youth, tobacco prevention workers and tribal leaders. It was a tobacco leaf that he held.

Dramatically, Shorty twisted the leaf over his head again and again, almost with rage.

"Realize that the tobacco industry has twisted our plant into something that causes addiction," he said.

Shorty was the keynote speaker at a two-day, University of Montana-sponsored American Indian conference on fighting tobacco abuse titled, "Many Voices, One Message: Keep Tobacco Sacred."

Though tobacco was the subject at hand, my smoking urges were controllable; since I was taking notes most of the time, I had something to do with my hands.

"My grandfather grew tobacco," Shorty continued. "He saw it as a way to bridge the gap between Indian folks, white folks and black folks."

Instantly, I knew this was going to be a different kind of tobacco-prevention conference. If Shorty's talk didn't make that clear, the fact that the conference began with a ceremonial tobacco ceremony where tribal elders passed a pipe to the male youths did. As the pipe made its way around the circle, Danny Vollin, a tribal elder and education specialist at UM's Center for Technical Assistance and Training, said, "If you pay attention, you can see the difference between what we do here and smoking a cigarette. There, you can see the chemicals coming out."

Of course, all tobacco is addictive, chemical additives or not. For Smoker Mike, it was tempting to think that perhaps if I just used this kind of tobacco, all would be right, but Nonsmoker Mike quickly reprimanded his mischievous counterpart. All my phony bargaining would lead to nothing but the fomentation of an American Spirit brand loyalist, who may not be ingesting all the extra chemicals, but who is nonetheless a prisoner of addiction.

Still, for the first time, I saw that there was a completely different tobacco ideology than I had previously been exposed to. Unlike most of the world, which basically uses tobacco solely as a drug, Indian tribes have several uses for the plant. It is sometimes hung on a wall to suck up bad talk and sickness, Vollin said. Theda New Breast, a Blackfeet leader, stated that it could be used to change the spirit of a place.

"Bring it to a hotel to get rid of the bad dreams of the old white guy that stayed in the room last night," she said.

Tobacco is also used as an offering to help the dead pass over and make the journey to the spirit world.

Lois Ellen Frank, author of Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, added that "Whenever food comes into being, we make an offering with tobacco."

Vollin, whose face was partially masked by thick glasses and a baseball cap, said that tobacco has – like many aspects of native culture – been taken out of context and distorted.

"The tobacco companies are making people nothing more than a profit," Vollin said.

And profiting they are, not just with American Indians, but with all smokers of commercial tobacco.

According the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Network for Health, more than 50 million Americans spend more than $38 billion on tobacco each year, creating a $45 billion a year industry in the United States, according to Mother Jones.

In addition to profiting from the slow death of millions of Americans, activists charge big tobacco with environmental degradation stemming from the use of chemical pesticides on tobacco plants. The damage doesn't stop with humans, either; RJR Nabisco has drawn the ire of animal rights activists including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals by forcing test baboons to smoke cocaine through the company's Premier brand cigarettes while the company was researching the brand's performance as a delivery system for nicotine.

For these reasons and many others, Lori New Breast, director of the Blackfeet Prevention Program, a Blackfeet tribal member and sister to Theda, told those at the conference that it's time for some changes.

"Our relationship to tobacco is not static," New Breast said. "If you heard what Danny [Vollin] said this morning, you're talking about reforming the traditional relationship. The destruction of commercial tobacco will lead to a new tobacco way. For the Blackfeet here today, we're already in the midst of a new tobacco way."

That way includes using tobacco only for sacred purposes. After two days of nonstop tobacco talk, I wondered if I could cultivate my own sacred relationship with tobacco, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was probably just Smoker Mike looking for another taste of his old reward. Even if I started out with good intentions, I knew I'd ultimately wind up smoking a "sacred" cigarette to celebrate the spirit of a laundromat parking lot. I'd just have to accept the fact that I'd been raised in a culture where tobacco is not sacred. Any attempt to change my outlook on it at this point would be addled addict's logic.

The next morning, the conference continued as the sun gradually rose over the dew-covered spruce trees of Big Mountain. I listened to Bob Cardinal, a member of the Cree Nation from the Enoch Reserve in British Columbia. Cardinal is a soft-spoken elder who delights in the mystery of the stories passed down to him by his ancestors, and he described the path of the smoker not as a mistake, but as "learning pains." Then he handed out rocks that had been blessed in a sweat lodge from a leather pouch. The one he offered me was smooth, and green as the spruce.

"If you ever want to smoke," Cardinal said, "just hold that rock close to your heart."

As the conference came to a close with drumming and song, I watched as everyone locked hands and arms and danced in a circle, slumping down and then quickly popping up with each beat of the drum while working their ways around a conference room that definitely wasn't designed for circle dances. I was putting my notebook away when a young woman grabbed my hand.

"Come on," she said.

And then I was dancing too. In a strange way, I felt as though my joining the circle was important. Smokers, when engaging in their defining activity in a pack, will often stand in a circle. Now I saw that there were other circles to join. It became clear to me then that what I had liked most about smoking – the communal aspect of it – could be found elsewhere, and was limited only by one's own hesitancy to join the circle. Most circles don't even care if you don't have a lighter.

Constant Cravings

I haven't smoked since that day of the circle dance, even though I've gone to a bar since. In fact, the day after the conference, I met Traci Gulledge, the Flathead city-county health promotion specialist, at the Great Northern bar in Whitefish. We talked about her work in promoting a tobacco-free lifestyle in the local schools, about how movies often make smoking look cool, about how my girlfriend will probably be excited to no longer have to deal with the "licking an ashtray" sensation that occurs when a nonsmoker kisses a smoker. We spent a good deal of time on whether kids might be more affected by straight facts or by some of the scare tactics she's tried, such as a black pig's lung preserved in a bag of formaldehyde or a prop called "Mr. Gross Mouth." As perverse as it might sound to the nonsmoker, even all this "icky" smoking talk made me want to light up.

We had just finished our second beer when the urge became lip-bitingly strong. As my craving reached its zenith, I wondered aloud if I might be one of those people who will always be addicted to something. Lately, my cigarette withdrawal has led to an astronomical consumption of Jolly Rancher candies, which sometimes makes me feel as though I've merely shifted myself from the fast track to lung cancer to the fast track to tooth decay.

"Maybe I should just be like Robert Palmer and be 'Addicted to Love,'" I said, instantly realizing that if I had a cigarette in my mouth this unfortunate sentence never would have come out. I dug into my pocket and found the shiny green rock that Bob Cardinal had given me. My fingertips worked over the smooth texture of that stone for the next 45 minutes until eventually I didn't want a cigarette anymore. At long last, I had found something to do with my hands.

American Express used to market its credit cards with the slogan "Don't leave home without it." For many years, however, it was cigarettes that I wouldn't leave home without. Sometimes I still think I feel a pack in my pocket when it's not there, like a recent amputee who has lost his legs but yet still feels phantom pains. But now, it's that rock I don't leave home without – a green stone that stays in my wallet for when I need it, like I did that night at the Great Northern.

Two days later I came home from work to find a Tobacco Cessation Guide from the "Montana" Tobacco Quit Line in my mailbox. The booklet features photos of smiling people holding pets and going for hikes. I wanted to be like these people, not the guy who swears at NBC public service announcements and scares strangers on the street. On the first page of text, the brochure asked if I knew that tobacco is "the only legal product that is deadly when used as intended." I thought back to the morning tobacco ceremony at the Big Mountain conference, the pipe that was passed with traditional song from Bob Cardinal to Danny Vollin, then to a group of respectful young boys, each inhaling a small puff or two amid the prayers.

And then I wondered who gets to define what tobacco was "intended" for.

As for my own definition, it's not complete just yet. I know Smoker Mike would tell you that nicotine is the most alluring stimulant ever created. Nonsmoker Mike...well, he'd probably say the same thing. That's why he had to give it up.

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