Drugs Part 3: Tobacco

I don’t recall the specific details about the first time I smoked tobacco. I’d already had my first taste of alcohol and smoked weed for the first time and neither had a detrimental effect, so it’s very likely I simply asked one of my many cigarette-smoking friends if I could hit one of theirs. I truly remember nothing about the non-event outside of the fact it occurred during the summer of 2000. I do however remember the first time I actually inhaled a cigarette.

My friend Jeff and I were sitting on the patio, smoking cigarettes. Well, he was properly smoking a cigarette, I was mouth-inhaling the thing. As we were talking about nothing in particular, he was performing the coolest looking tricks with the smoke. He’d casually blow out perfectly-formed smoke rings. He also had the smoke seep out of his mouth and zip up in his nose in a manoeuvre called a “French inhale.” Jeff did his best to teach me, but try as I might, I failed to replicate those same tricks.

He seemed to notice something and told me to hit the cigarette like I had been, but then take a big gasp of air immediately afterwards. I did as instructed and coughed my lungs out. He laughed like there was no tomorrow. This was the first time I ever inhaled a cigarette. It was honestly pretty horrible. Inhaling cigarette smoke correctly was disgusting, burning, ashy, dry, but it gave the brain a nice tingling effect.

Once the initial grossness of smoking went away, the nicotine buzz was rather pleasurable and much more enjoyable than the one from alcohol. Marijuana, once properly inhaled into the lungs, was pretty fun as well (as I’ve mentioned in part 2), but you couldn’t really walk around in public smoking weed. A cigarette you could enjoy virtually anywhere without fear of breaking any laws.

It’s taboo to say, but I thoroughly enjoyed smoking cigarettes. I learned to do neat tricks like the aforementioned smoke rings and French inhale. There was something really cool about smoking. Something dangerous. The way smoke would dance in the air was spellbinding. I oftentimes would smoke just to watch it lift upwards into the air.

Camel cigarettes quickly became my brand, with Kamel Red or Camel Menthol being my smokes of choice in the beginning. Then Camel came out with flavoured ones I thought were fantastic. “Mandarin Mint” was an orange-mint flavour. “Twist” was citrus. “Dark Mint” was chocolate-mint. Then there was “Turkish Jade.” Goddamn, I thought those were delicious. Turkish tobacco with a light menthol that left a minty aftertaste in your mouth. “Turkish Jade 100’s” were my go-to for many, many years. Towards the end of my life as a tobacco smoker, I moved on to Nat Sherman Mint cigarettes and Eclipse Mint. Regular tobacco flavour didn’t delight me the way mint/menthol did.

I smoked about 10 cigarettes (half a pack) each day. If I was stressed or out drinking or dancing, more would be obviously consumed. I too enjoyed cigars (which were meant for a good old fashioned mouth inhale). In fact, one of the finest things I’ve ever smoked was a genuine Cuban cigar (back when it was illegal to possess one within the U.S.). A friend of mine, Bill, used to own a hotel/restaurant we regularly hung out at (Bill was an amazing, talented, and generous man who is unfortunately no longer with us). Upon learning how much I enjoyed smoking, Bill gave to me a fine Cuban cigar from his private stash. I can’t recall exactly what brand it was, but it was astoundingly good. Thick, hearty flavour. Beautiful smell to it. It’s been well over a decade since I’ve smoked tobacco, but if that same cigar was placed in front of me today I would be seriously tempted.

I was also introduced to shisha/hookah and loved that even more than cigarettes. The variety of flavours was astounding and delicious! While smoking lent itself to being a social activity pretty well, hookah smoking was a truly communal one. Smoking a hookah felt more like an event or party than cigarettes did. I became quite good at creating flavour combinations and preparing the shisha (even moonlighting at a hookah lounge on occasion). I owned a large, beautifully ornate hookah that lasted me for many years before I gave it away.

It was fairly hypocritical of me to be smoking whatsoever. My father smoked around me constantly from when I was born until the age of 13 or 14. Every time he would grab his pack of cigarettes, I started coughing. Loudly. Annoyingly. He reminded me of that fact when he eventually discovered that I had taken up smoking.

One of the reasons I enjoyed smoking was because I never noticed any side effects. There was no smoker’s cough. I never had to expel mountains of phlegm. All the negative things the commercials and health warnings beat into my head never came to pass. I did experience the occasional heart palpitation, but I’ve since learned those were a result of my pectus excavatum (concave chest) rather than the smoking. After a while, I still wanted to quit. Despite no visible signs, I knew it wasn’t good for me or my lungs. Negative effects were bound to spring up if I continued smoking. My grandfather had massive lung problems due to smoking most of his life and my father’s decades of smoking eventually caused him to develop lung cancer. Both suffered the same concave chest as me and smoking almost certainly exacerbated their lungs.

Quitting tobacco was initially difficult. I tried nicotine gums, lozenges, and the patch. Fun facts: the patch gives you intense, strange dreams and if you smoke weed while wearing the patch, your high is intensified. I even tried a nicotine hand sanitizer. Instead of reducing cravings, all it did was make my hands smell like I’d dipped them into a wet ashtray. How that’s supposed to help you quit is something I’ll never understand. Eventually, I was successful in quitting by doing 1 simple thing: going cold turkey. Lingering on with “quitting aids” simply prolonged the inevitable. When I finally quit, I quit. I was never “quitting,” I had “quit.” I still smoked weed and hookah at the time, but neither was something that could be done the same ease and regularity that cigarettes could be. I also didn’t tell anyone I had quit. Nothing spoils your mood more when you’ve given up cigarettes than people constantly harassing you with, “How’s the not smoking going?”

My last cigarette was sometime in the summer of 2008. Just about 8 years of smoking. Once I was a full-blown “quitter,” I never noticed an increase in my lung capacity or any other real improvement in my overall health, save one. My sense of smell and taste increased dramatically (realistically, those senses returned after being diminished by smoking). I also came to realize how disgusting I smelled as a smoker and how god-awful every smoker smelled. I was ashamed to think that I reeked like a mobile garbage fire for all that time.

2 years of no smoking ensued. Then in 2010 a bunch of us were out to dinner for a friend’s birthday. Sat outside at a restaurant, my friend Sol was holding a thin, black pen to his lips, then exhaling smoke. He said it was an electronic cigarette and there was no nicotine in it. Curious, I tried it. The flavour was a miscellaneous fruit blend than left a vaguely plastic-y sensation in my mouth. I was delighted and mystified by it, so I quickly got one of my own. Vaping was touted as being healthier than smoking.

As vaping became more popular, the units that delivered the vapour became bigger and more powerful. What was once a small pen-shaped device that farted out a minuscule amount of vapour became a huge, hulking box that allowed you to expel monstrously large clouds. Part of the initial allure of vaping for me was the newness and mystery of it. In the early vaping days, you could literally vape anywhere because there’s virtually no secondhand smoke/vapour. At the office, at the grocery store, at the movies, at restaurants, everywhere. Unlike smoking, vaping left little-to-no evidence afterwards, so it became incredibly easy to get in the habit of hitting your mod constantly.

Once electronic cigarettes gained momentum and started appearing everywhere, it started feeling more no different than regular cigarettes. People started posting “No Smoking/Vaping” signs. The FDA slapped it in the tobacco category. Studies started coming out stating that while vaping is healthier than cigarettes, it was still bad for you. Those who vaped started becoming militantly interested in it. Angrily proclaiming how safe and healthy vaping was. I was starting to experience more heart palpitations than usual after vaping for some time. When I smoked (and when I didn’t smoke anything), I’d get a palpitation rarely. Near the end of my vaping, I would feel one every couple of days.

Quitting vaping was ridiculously easy. I quit cold turkey in May of 2018 (coincidentally 8 years after I started, the same amount of time I spent with cigarettes), gave my vape away, and didn’t tell anyone I was quitting (same procedure as before). It took some time, but I’ve come to realize that I was more addicted to having my hands occupied than I was with the actual cigarettes (analogue or electronic). My hands need to be busy and whenever I was physically bored, that’s the time cravings popped up. Since you could vape more places than you could smoke, my hands became more accustomed to being occupied than they did with Camel cigarettes. My hands became addicted to the physicality that smoking/vaping engendered. They’re satisfied currently with a Lego fidget cube.

I still don’t remember why I ever tried smoking in the first place. Copious amounts of ads highlighted how destructive smoking is to your health and it is quite a disgusting habit to be around, but still, I smoked. Maybe I felt invincible (as the young often do). Maybe my disillusionment over pot and alcohol having no ill effect tricked me into thinking smoking was likewise harmless. Personally, my overall experience with cigarettes wasn’t all that negative, but after 8 years of smoking I’m either a rare case that lucked out or the damage caused has yet to fully reveal itself.