My Private War on Smoking

Mom in her college years

Mom in her college years

[Author’s note: Just after I published this, Harvard Business Review published an online article that explored why major tobacco brands are looking at e-cigarettes (“vaping”) as an opportunity. It included this quote about the potential tradeoff between risks and benefits, “…how many nicotine addicts is it worth the risk of creating to have one tobacco smoker quit?”]

[This just posted as NY Times Breaking News: the FDA will propose sweeping new rules for e-cigarettes on April 24.]

My college-aged son smokes cigarettes. So do most of his friends. Not all the time, but socially. And it’s killing me.

In 1964, the Surgeon General released its definitive report about the health effects of smoking.

The discussion wasn’t new. The cigarette companies had regularly trotted out doctors who would testify before Congress that smoking itself was benign; one of those doctors, a prominent cancer surgeon from Los Angeles, spoke in opposition to restrictions. He died a few years later, of lung cancer. So did his wife. I know because their daughter was a colleague of mine. A fellow smoker, she died of lung cancer at age 46.

I was six when the Surgeon General’s report made it official: smoking kills. Based on a review of more than 7,000 scientific articles, the report was expected to be a bombshell, so much so that the report was released on a Sunday to avoid upsetting the stock market.

At home, my private war began. At that age, I’m sure my initial attacks on my mother’s smoking habit were verbal.

By fourth grade, I had advanced to a write-in campaign:

Dearest mother,

This letter may be based on your life or death. Mother if you don’t stop I’ll kill myself. If you die my spirit and soul will die. If you have to die I don’t want you to die in agony.

Dean saw a film with a guy in sheer agony, he had lung cancer.

Love truly,


P.S. I love you

Then I turned to marketing, creating this “ad” with a red felt pen:

Smoking may cause…

Discoloration of your face


Destroy your lips

Destroy your fingers

Burn your taste buds

+ burn cili’s off.


Not at 2507 Helena Lane

Or any place ELSE FOR Mrs. H.S. Campbell

My efforts failed.

After my Mom was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in 1999, she weaved in and out of lucidity. On an afternoon of relative clarity, she asked me, “Do I have lung cancer?”

Yes, I answered. She was quiet. Then she said, “I wish I had stopped.” Much later she told me, “Tell others not to start smoking.”

She tried to stop, she really did. In her college years, smoking was just something she did socially. Everyone did. Decades later, smoking was still in vogue. In the photos of Mom and Dad at formal Marine Corps’ events, everyone smoked. Somewhere along the line, her social habit became an addiction.

And that’s what I’m afraid of. Again. When I see my son or his friends smoke, it all comes back to me: the look on my mother’s face as she struggled for breath. Her growing pallor as oxygen was depleted in her bloodstream.

I begged my Mom to stop but she liked the way smoking felt. Or maybe by then the addiction was too well established. Maybe she couldn’t stop.

Twenty-somethings aren’t great at imagining a time when toxic habits collect.

Unfortunately, I am. I’ve already seen it.




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4 responses to “My Private War on Smoking

  1. Sandy

    That she saved the letters tells you how badly she must have wanted to quit.

  2. I’ve already seen it, too. Too many times.

  3. Ellen Carleson

    I hear you, dear heart. I love that you remember and probably have evidence of your campaign against smoking. So hard to watch your kids err. Love you!Ellen

    Date: Tue, 22 Apr 2014 23:17:28 +0000 To:

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