Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Welcome to Marlboro Country

Normally, I wouldn't care if President Obama smokes cigarettes - I wouldn't care if he smokes a pack a day. But I do care that as he crusades against smoking addiction as the most powerful man in the world, he becomes indignant with those who question him about his own smoking addiction. It's as if he isn't the one with the problem - it's the stupid reporters who keep butting (pardon the pun) into his personal business who have the problem.

Today, a day after the President signed into law what he called "his" anti-smoking legislation, a reporter asked him what is clearly not his favorite recurring line of questioning about his smoking habit.

She began, "Thank you, Mr. President. As a former smoker, I understand the frustration and the fear that comes with quitting, but with the new law that you signed yesterday regulating the tobacco industry, I would like to ask you a few questions, how many cigarettes a day --"

The President interrupted her, "A few questions?" He clearly didn't like where this was going.

She came back, "Well -- how many cigarettes a day do you smoke? Do you smoke alone or in the presence of other people? And do you believe the new law would help you to quit and why?" She was obviously zeroing in on the apparent addiction dichotomy.

The President responded, "I've said before that as a former smoker, I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids. I don't do it in front of my family. You know, I would say that I am 95 percent cured, but there are times where -- there are times when I mess up."

He forgot to ask himself one question, "Am I in denial here?" The answer to that question would have been "yes."

I'm not a smoker, nor am I an addict, recovering or otherwise - thankfully. But I have known addicts and counselors who would tell you that you are not a "former smoker" if you're falling off the wagon or if you sometimes "mess up." If you're 95% "cured" of smoking, that means that you are still a 5% smoker - if there is such a thing - which is another way of saying that you are not a "former smoker."

I think the President's missing a great opportunity to struggle with his own smoking problem and make an important point about smoking addiction.

How much would he have helped the cause if he had answered the reporter's question this way:

"The new anti-smoking law is not about me, it's about kids who might someday think it's cool to smoke, for whatever reason. Cigarette companies have been exploiting kids for decades by embedding flavorings in their tobacco to make cigarettes more appetizing and they've used clever and famous advertising imagery to glamorize smoking. Remember the Marlboro Man?

"Let me tell you about the Marlboro Man. Don McLaren, David McLean, and Dick Hammer were all Marlboro Men who appeared in Marlboro advertisements. All three died of lung cancer and are part of the reason that Marlboro Reds became known as "Cowboy killers."

"So, I know by now some of you are wondering, "How is the Marlboro Man different than the President of the United States?" Well, here's the difference: unlike me, the Marlboro Man got paid to be the face of fashionable smoking. I'm not saying that to be cute; I'm saying that because although I haven't been paid to deliver the message, my example is as compelling as the Marlboro Man's message ever was. There is one other difference: cigarettes killed the Marlboro Man, and we're still waiting to see how it turns out for me...

"I am aware that since I can't stand here and tell you that I'm no longer smoking, my living example works against my public stance on the issue. But I guess it shows how powerfully addicting tobacco can be. I mean, I've tried to stop smoking, but I constantly struggle with it. I don't do it in front of my family because I don't want my kids to pick up this terrible habit. I don't even like talking about it in public because I don't want other people, especially kids, to think it's cool and start smoking themselves.

"If you want to keep asking me that question every month or so, I guess you can. I won't like the question, but maybe the embarrassment I face in answering it every month will help drive me to make a life change regarding my smoking. I do realize that ending an addiction requires a life change and that if I smoke even one cigarette a day or if I light up when I'm having a rough day, then I can't refer to myself a "former smoker." That's my burden.

"I really don't want kids to think I'm cool when I'm smoking, so maybe the best thing I can do until I muster the will power to quit is to hope that one of you keeps asking me that question so kids can see how it haunts and embarrasses me. That's something the Marlboro Man could never do. So, thank you for the question."