The Scamp

By Jens Tamang

The recent upheaval of anti-smoking regulations on campus has forced a few of us, smokers and non-smokers alike, to ask “why?” Why do we smoke, and as such, why are we so cynical about not being able to do so within whatever-it-is feet of doorways. The answer to all these “whys” resides in the first cigarette. Every smoker remembers his first cigarette with fondness. This seems strange when one considers that tobacco, at first, induces nausea and dizziness. Cigarettes require that one become addicted to them before they induce pleasure.

And therein lies their mystery. Unlike heroin, ecstasy, alcohol and cocaine, all of which are rewarding from the first dose, addiction precedes tobacco’s pleasure. Once hooked, each cigarette provides a small dose of nicotine that satiates the desire for itself, like a knot that constantly winds itself up only to be untied. So the question is not “Why do people smoke?” but “Why do people go out of their way to start?”

The simplest answer, meaning the one that non-smokers will give you, is that it looks “cool.”

Why, they ask, are smokers trading their health for a vacuous image? But it is not this simple and one living off mac’n’cheese might do better to interrogate his own health. There have been countless anti-smoking campaigns that attempt to dislodge tobacco from its romance with “coolness,” yet teenage smoking abounds in ever increasing numbers.

People might start smoking to look cool, but it’s certainly not why they continue. At some point you’re addicted and, as my friends say, the party’s over. You look bad. You smell bad. Your mouth tastes like tar. People continue smoking to alter the way they perceive, not to alter the way they are perceived.

I have often joked that when I quit smoking I will do it cold turkey with the exception of cigarettes after sex, during European films or long baths, when angry, drinking, inside a Wisconsin diner, and/or, finally, in pensive solitude. Once addicted, a cigarette punctuates with pleasure the occasion you take to smoke it. Some might call it a system of “rewards.” Just like school children who make tick marks in their notebooks, counting down the minutes until school’s out, smokers stratify their life into sections.

There is one other constituency that also does this: prisoners.

Prisoners tick away the days with chalk on the walls of their cells and, as the theory goes, by chopping the days into perceptible units of chronometry time moves faster and less oppressively. Likewise, it is not the cigarettes themselves that bring happiness to the smoker, but the way in which they change the smoker’s perception of time. Non-smokers experience time sequentially. Smokers experience time relatively, that is between occasions. The Greeks called the former chronos, which was is quantitative and continuous, and the latter kairos, which was qualitative through relativity.

It is not the pleasure itself that is most appealing; it is the tick of addiction’s clock and the way it structures our lives. We’re addicted to kairos, not nicotine. And this is why the patch is the most effective way to quit smoking: it delivers a continuous stream of nicotine, thereby robbing the smoker of kairos while also satiating desire.

Anyone who is paying attention feels that time is tyrannical-especially the college student. He is imprisoned in school, at home, by his bubbling hormones, his roommates, his family, his teachers and a system that can neither understand nor accommodate him, but to which he is forever in servitude. Life moves for the college student as it does for the inmate: slowly, grueling, never ending. This is why smokers trying to quit will tell you that the days drag on, that they feel stupid, fat and bored. For ex-smokers, the life they live is simply a dull progression towards death. Non-smokers, then, are the lucky few who were born too daft to need cigarettes.

Considering smoking’s prevalence among the working class, I would like to set aside the bourgeois paternalism implicit in these new smoking regulations. My labor is to illustrate that there is a way to persuade students to quit smoking, and that way is to make their lives more bearable. Unfortunately, I have never known this administration to be concerned with such trivial pursuits and would certainly never hold them to the task of making our lives worth living.

So the next time a smoker politely asks “Mind if if smoke?” you will know that the correct response is not “Care if I die?” but “Sharesies?”

Jens Tamang ’11 is an op-ed columnist for The Mac Weekly. He can be reached at [email protected]