Although my parents both smoked in their rebellious youths, they had quit for good long before my brother and I came onto the scene. As I was growing up, my parents’ friends (mainly church-folk) were also non-smokers. These were the adults I respected and adored. In retrospect, it was perhaps coincidence more than anything that led me to notice that adults who smoked were rough, vulgar and not very bright. But circumstances aligned to allow me to form this interpretation, and admittedly, it has stuck with me.
I struggle to remember any smoker in my childhood that I genuinely felt safe with. I can still recall my first ballet teacher, a squat bleach-blonde lady leaning against the doorframe with a lit cigarette as she instructed the seven-year-olds to “dance sexier.” This was in stark contrast to Amanda, my second ballet teacher after I switched dance schools in grade six. She was one of my shining childhood role-models who cared deeply for us.
On one occasion, I was over at my brother’s friend’s house and it was out of his father’s mouth (an avid smoker) that I first heard the word “fuck” spoken in anger by an adult. It took me completely by surprise and scared me terribly. Because even now, I have still not heard this word in anger from either of my parents. It only reinforced what I already felt about smokers in general.
In the 90s when I was a kid, television was inundated with anti-smoking ads aimed at children and teenagers. Everyone my age ostensibly knew that smoking was a habit that could harm you. But all the ads and PSAs were only vague, far-away warnings compared to the living proof I was faced with every day: Our elementary school principal, Mrs. MacKenzie.
She was a behemoth of a woman. She must have weighed five hundred pounds. But despite that, she was defined in my mind only by her incessant smoking. We always saw her standing by the front doors, puffing away even in the bitter cold. At school assemblies, she’d get winded just walking to the podium and then be overtaken by fits of coughing. I genuinely thought, at eight years old, that I might witness her death. I can’t remember her voice or face. I can’t remember how she treated us or spoke to us, whether or not she even liked children. All I remember is that she was (and remains) the symbol of smoking for me. The opposite of cool or attractive. The opposite of rebellious— she was a slave.
I took this “picture” of smoking with me to junior high school. None of my friends were remotely interested in smoking, and none of the smoking kids were remotely interested in me. It was perfect. The last thing I wanted in life was to become Mrs. MacKenzie, so I was prepared to resist peer pressure at any cost. There was really only one jr. high experience involving smoking that made an impression on me, but it made a profound one.
One lunch hour, Kim and I were crossing the street on our way to 7-Eleven with two other girls in our grade. We were about fourteen at the time. Kim and I were going to get candy; the other girls were going to attempt to replenish their cigarette stash. One of Kim or I asked, “Why do you smoke? Don’t you know it’s bad for you?” One replied, “Yeah, but we aren’t afraid. Bring on the cancer! Anyway, smoking is cool because our parents can’t stop us.” It was at that moment that I saw and understood, plainly, how pathetic and unintelligent rebellion was. It was as though these girls were too dumb to piece together that the reason their parents didn’t want them to do something harmful was because they wanted the best for them, not because they wanted to deny them happiness.
Those few offhand words from a girl I never respected affected the course of my teenage life. I decided to rebel against rebellion. Instead of doing whatever I could to wreck myself in order to appear cool (smoking, swearing, drinking, listening to over-loud debauched music, drugs, sex— all the things teenagers do best), I just did what made me genuinely happy. I enjoyed my friends and tried hard in school and made my parents proud. In high school and beyond, I didn’t waste a moment’s thought on whether anyone thought I was cool due to what I did or didn’t do. Such a gift that foolish girl unknowingly gave to me.
“Foolish” is a word that is interesting to think about. I don’t use it interchangeably with “stupid” because I think there is a subtle difference. Often, “stupid” just means “ignorant.” A stupid person could become smart with some education or enlightenment and would likely change their ways. But a fool doesn’t need new information. They are not ignorant of facts. A fool is someone who is aware of consequences, but proceeds anyway. They say, “I know I shouldn’t, but…” They don’t care.
I think smoking— cigarettes, cigars and the like— is foolish and considering my background, find it difficult to respect anyone’s decision to do it. Since I have never smoked, I can’t hope to comprehend the attraction. Thanks to Mrs. MacKenzie, I could certainly never interpret it as looking cool or dignified. Thus, to me, it is a destructive action with no long-term pay-off. People’s attempts to help me understand have all failed. My brain can’t envision a feeling so good or a mind so calm that I’d be willing to, over time, risk my life for it. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to depend on an external substance to get it.
Above all, I hope my words illustrate that it is not out of superiority that I condemn smoking. It is because of my childhood and the people who formed it. When I see, now, people that I love smoking, it throws me into uncomfortable doubt that I’d be happier to avoid. Because due to the smokers I knew as a kid who were horrible, quick-tempered and unintelligent, I can’t help but question the goodness, patience and intelligence of these people in my adult life who also enjoy smoking. The smell of tobacco smoke puts me on edge quicker than any other smell, because as a child I had it linked so reliably with people who made me feel scared and uncomfortable because they were so unlike my parents— my benchmark for goodness and safety. It’s better for me that I don’t think much about the smoking habits, however occasional, of the people I like. If I dwell on it, it makes me unbearably sad.
Those are my thoughts on smoking as they exist within the framework of my own prejudice, separate, really, from any other ideology. When I think of it theologically, my mild aversion becomes a touch indignant: A Christian who smokes says to God, “Hey, this healthy body? Thanks but no thanks.” The aggravation of it all bothers me, but I suppose that for me to feel anger on God’s behalf is rather unnecessary.