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Stubbing Out Cigarettes For Good: An Intern's Tale

Originally published on June 24, 2011 3:52 pm

The only thing more aggravating than being told by a nonsmoker that "smoking is bad for you" is being taunted with offers to go outside by a cigarette-waggling co-worker halfway through your first week of quitting smoking.

"Wanna come out for a smoke?"

Yes, you evil spawn of Satan. I do.

If you can make it through that delicate time without trying to strangle someone with the smoke ring he just blew in your face or giving in and having "just one," you're golden.

But that's the hard part.

On Tuesday, the FDA unveiled the graphic photos that will become part of cigarette warning labels starting in 2012. Yesterday was also my three-month "quitiversary." I felt fortunate that the new labels weren't something I'd ever interact with on a regular basis — but I was reminded how difficult shaking addiction is.

Someone who has never smoked doesn't understand the struggle, and someone who smokes has never really quit. It's a lonely process.

Addiction to cigarettes is funny that way. How it convinces you that it's your friend. How it truly makes you believe that while you need to go have a smoke you simultaneously aren't addicted. You can quit anytime you want. But, why would you? Smoking is fun!

Any smokers who say they aren't addicted are lying to themselves. Some people, mostly smokers, have disagreed with me on that. I've heard and used many excuses for not quitting — making friends, oral fixation, general anxiety — and while I'm not an expert or anything, I've been on both sides of this now. It wasn't the social life that kept manipulative little happiness-stick tucked between my middle and pointer finger.

Three months ago yesterday, I literally and figuratively flicked my last cigarette. The day had been looming for a while. I wasn't going to leave college and Lincoln, Neb., as a smoker. Mental preparation had started months before, and I'd become used to the idea of quitting. After a while there simply wasn't any question. It was like anticipating my 25th birthday — as much as I dreaded it, it was a simple reality.

I was in the middle of a cigarette the moment I quit. I hadn't set a date ahead of time. I feared if I did it would cause me to put too much emotional stock in each cigarette I smoked. So, as I exhaled the final swirl of smoke on my balcony, I acknowledged that my addiction was telling me just one more puff. Just one more smoke. Just one more day. One more week. One more. Waiting wasn't going to make it easier.

So, it ended then. I flushed a pack and a half of cigarettes and never looked back. In hindsight I am truly apologetic to Lincoln's wastewater management system for abusing the plumbing (seriously, that was pretty dumb), but it will prove to be one of the most important decisions in my life.

So, it turned out OK. A pack a day — cold turkey. There were moments I felt weak — like when I walked behind a stranger who was smoking in hopes of smelling the waft of burning carcinogens, or the time I found an entire unopened pack lying on the ground. But I didn't fold. I've had smoke blown in my face, and stressful days with money to burn, but I haven't done it.

I'm not sure how well the new FDA labels will work. In this painfully connected world it's no secret what cigarettes will do to a body, and it wasn't guilt or logic that finally made me quit. But, as my mom used to say, "couldn't hurt, might help."

In bittersweet irony, the smokers who had so many jokes and taunts and smoke rings for me before don't have anything to say anymore.

Because why would I care about cigarettes being waved seductively in front of my face? I don't even smoke. It's bad for you. It says so right on the label.

Lacey Mason is a recent graduate of The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and a summer intern at NPR.

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