Phil Gulley: Ashes to Ashes

Cigarettes continue to extinguish thousands of lives a week, and I’m smoldering about it.
I was driving through Southern Indiana not long ago, and a robotic voice piped up, informing me I had 50 miles to go before running out of gas. This is a vast improvement over the old days, when our cars told us they were out of gas by not running anymore. A few miles down the road, I saw a gas station and pulled in to fill up the tank—also a vast improvement over the old days, when I could only afford $10 of gas at a time. A young woman pulled up next to me and exited her car smoking a cigarette. She swiped a credit card at the pump and proceeded to gas up her car, the lit cigarette dangling from her mouth.

“Excuse me,” I said, pointing to a big sign six inches from her nose. “You can’t smoke while filling your car.”

She glared at me, then threw her cigarette on the ground, clearly annoyed by my unwillingness to be blown to smithereens. As I pumped my gas, I wondered if it were my imagination, or if there really are more stupid people these days than there used to be. On the way home, I heard on the radio that Donald Trump was the leading Republican presidential nominee, so I guess that answers it.

I’ve been thinking about that young lady ever since. I suspect now that she has started smoking, she’ll keep at it until it kills her. Before she dies, she’ll probably spend time in a hospital, hooked up to a ventilator, because her lungs will be hard and black and shriveled up like stale raisins. Her treatment will likely cost taxpayers a boatload of money, too. It would be cheaper to pay the lady $1 million right now to stop smoking. I’d start smoking if I knew someone was going to pay me $1 million to stop.

My father began smoking when he was 16 and Ronald Reagan was encouraging America’s youth to smoke Chesterfields. Then Camel rolled out advertisements claiming, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” So my father began puffing away, hoping to capitalize on the health benefits of tar, only to become hopelessly addicted. He’s still alive, but when he dies, it’ll be cigarettes that get him.

The Indiana legislature toyed with the idea of rebuilding our state’s infrastructure by raising the taxes on cigarettes, a proposition I wholeheartedly supported since I don’t smoke. It has been known for years that the more cigarettes cost, the fewer of them that are sold. Every 10 percent increase in tobacco taxes results in a 10 percent decrease in smoking among the young and a 5 percent decrease among adults. I’m not in charge—something for which you should thank God every day—but if I were, I would raise taxes on tobacco until there were no smokers left. The government hasn’t done this for two reasons. First, the tobacco lobby pays lawmakers millions of dollars a year not to. And second, as expensive as it is to provide medical care to smokers, it’s cheaper to do that than to have people quit smoking, live longer, and collect more Social Security and Medicare. Yes, kids, that’s right. The United States government makes money when more people smoke. Indeed, up until 1975, the government put cigarettes in soldiers’ rations, causing millions of young men to become addicted to smoking. It’s safe to say hundreds of thousands of those men died from lung cancer, compliments of the country they were fighting to defend.

A restaurant I frequent in Clayton forbade smoking before the state got around to it. Several of the smoking customers predicted the restaurant would close, but every time I go there, nearly every table is full. In fact, I didn’t go there when smoking was permitted because I didn’t want to wade through a haze, coughing and hacking, to get to the non-smoking section. Whenever any activity is banned, those who practice it always overstate the consequences, predicting the end of the world as we know it. But the restaurant owners I know said that when smoking was forbidden, their profits went up, not down.

When I was in junior high, a boy in our neighborhood stole some cigarettes from his dad and smoked them behind our barn. I smoked one with him, became sick to my stomach, and vomited. He urged me to keep trying, suggesting that I’d get used to it after a while and even begin to enjoy it. But I’m odd that way—if something makes me puke, I generally avoid it from then on.

My friend was made of sterner stuff and kept at it, stealing a cigarette from his father each day, then buying cigarettes from a vending machine at a gas station when the owner wasn’t watching. Within a year he was hooked, unable to make it through a school day without lighting up in the boys’ restroom after lunch. By the time he graduated from high school, he was chain-smoking, the dying embers from one cigarette lighting his next one. He’s dead now, killed by cigarettes before he held his first grandchild.

And death by lung cancer isn’t the worst of it. A surprising number of people each year die in house fires started by cigarettes. I knew one of them, a man whose name I won’t mention since his death was monumentally stupid and I don’t want to embarrass his family. He fell asleep in his recliner, and the lit cigarette fell from his mouth, ignited the chair, and burned down the house with him in it. He had been warned by his wife a million times not to smoke in his recliner, given his habit of nodding off. But he was too stubborn for his own good, telling her it was perfectly safe, that cigarettes extinguished themselves if they weren’t being smoked. It appears he was mistaken.

Smoking isn’t the only hazard to our health we persist in doing. I ride motorcycles, which my mother believes will one day kill me. In 2014, the latest year for which we have records, 4,295 people were killed on motorcycles in the United States, while more than 480,000 people died from cigarettes. I don’t know how many people will die this year from being blown up at gas stations, but I’m trying my best not to be one of them.