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Two Cents Worth

Let's face it. I smoked, on and off, for about 30 years. I heard all the stories about smoking and lung cancer, and with all the warning labels on cigarette packs, felt that the tobacco industry had posted a legitimate "buyer beware" warning that should let them off the hook. I still do. My view on that has never changed.


By Jon Christian Ryter Copyright 2000 - All Rights Reserved
To distribute this article, please post this web address or hyperlink.

September 28, 2001

At least, not in that one area. But, as the recipient of a very recent triple bypass I am exercising my option to change my opinion of the harm of smoking cigarettes. It has been a radical change based on the very recent education of Jon Christian Ryter. If you are a cigarette smoker, or are married to a cigarette smoker...particularly a smoker who is in his or her mid- to late-40s, since their lives are at risk today. If you love 'em, you gotta make 'em read this.

I hate to admit when I started smoking. I was 12 years old. My brother and I were walking home from school and found an unopened back of Lucky Strikes, a jar of mustard, and one or two other items which apparently had fallen out of someone's grocery bag as they walked that same path minutes earlier. Being 12, we had little use for a jar of mustard, but that pack of Luckies was intriguing. My brother, who is 18 months older than me, pocketed the cigarettes and we took them home.

Once at home (about an hour or so before either of our parents) we took the cigarettes down to the basement and lit up. After the initial coughing, choking and gagging, we got the hang of "puffing the weed." This 12-year old felt "all grown up." My brother got a step ladder and hid our "stash" on top of the one of the eye-beams in the basement. My brother got caught by my dad smoking a few hours later. His punishment was to learn how to "smoke like a man."

My dad stuck a big ol' cheap cigar that he'd had about 5 or 6 years in my brother's mouth, lit him up...and parked him outside the bathroom door. My brother sat there, with an ear-to-ear grin, puffing that cheap old cigar like he had truly hit the "big time." I watched his face turn from puffy delight to two or three shades of green before he crawled on his hands and knees to the toilet. When my brother finished heaving his guts in the commode he was, and remained, a confirmed non-smoker.

I wasn't as lucky as my brother. I never got caught.

On my 16th Christmas I received-from my parents-a carton of cigarettes and a cigarette lighter. For a 16 year old who stole his cigarettes from every relative who smoked, that was a priceless gift. The gift, of course, was not the cigarettes or the lighter, but the tacit approval of my parents to smoke.

In those days, there were no cigarette health warnings. If there was any medical tests going on, nobody knew about it. Since the harbingers of the evils of tobacco have been with us since around 1890, claiming that tobacco was the cause of cancer (because neither cancer nor the detrimental impact of nicotine was understood by the medical community).

The Cigarette Warning Labels

When warning labels first appeared on cigarette packs, I was not too impressed, nor was I "duly warned." Why? For a couple of reasons. First, I never thought the government made a good case for their argument, based on evidence. Second, the government never presented their evidence to the public other than to tell us that their scientists had proven conclusively that smoking caused lung cancer. (Since it was established in U.S. District Court in the late 1990s, they had no such tangible evidence-particularly to prove that second hand smoke also caused lung cancer.) I had a problem with the government's argument because I had seen too many instances where people smoked for 50 years or more and didn't get lung cancer, and a like amount of people who never smoked, did. (To the "experts" these people became the victims of second hand smoke since there was no other way to explain their cancer.)

As the political battle over the health risk of smoking continued, the medical community knew conclusively that people who smoke cigarettes (and those who smoke and consistently inhale cigar smoke) are going to die prematurely. They knew smoking was bad because they got to look at the lungs of people who smoked two or more packs of cigarettes--and see lungs that looked like the picture on the left. Of course, the doctor doesn't get to show you this view of your lungs since this is a view seen only by the physician who is doing your autopsy.

The discoloration you see on this lung is not cancer-the threat you are constantly hammered with by the anti-smoking advocates. What you see on this lung is nicotine and tar. This is not a healthy lung. But the odds are very good that what killed the person who used (or rather misused) these lungs was not cancer, nor emphysema (chronic pulmonary disease). What probably killed this person was a heart attack-caused by smoking. Tobacco is a cancer-causing agent. There is not doubt about it. But, comparing the number of people who smoke to the amount who gets lung cancer, the number is small. If you favor chewing tobacco or Skoal or other brands of that form of tobacco, the odds of your getting throat cancer, mouth cancer, cancer of the gums or lips, or cancer of the tongue are about one hundred to a thousand times greater than those who do not use tobacco products.

Tragically, Skoal and its companion products, are predominantly used by young people. Walk down any city street in the United States and you will see young people, 17 to about 25 or so, with that familiar ring in their hip pocket. Many of these young people will not live to see 50. Or, if they do, many of them will have experienced major surgery to their mouth, throat, lungs-or prostate gland since people who use chewing tobacco are ten times more likely to develop prostate cancer.

The Real Hazard of Cigarettes

I never really bought the argument that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. I've always felt that some people are genetically predisposed to cancer; others are not. But then, I'm not a doctor. Nor are the millions of Americans who smoke who also haven't bought the cancer rhetoric of the American Heart Association or the Cancer Foundation. Why? Because [1] they've never presented solid, concrete evidence from unbiased third parties, and [2] if cigarettes caused lung cancer then everyone, or almost everyone who smoked excessively, would get lung cancer. That isn't the case.

However, EVERY person--without exception--who smokes cigarettes will get [a] blocked arteries, [b] hardening of the arteries, and [c] heart disease. If you smoke cigarettes--even moderately--you have doubled your risk of having a fatal heart attack. If you are a heavy smoker, you have very likely eliminated 1/3 of your potential life. What is even worse is that when a heavy smoker gets his or her first heart attack, it will likely be their last one. Heart attacks from arteries blocked by nicotine, which hardens into plaque, are usually fatal because the blockages usually happen over a short period of time, and those blockages are usually very severe-80% or more in almost every artery and vein. Occasionally tiny fragments of nicotine will flake off and enter the blood stream. Each of these fragments of concrete--like nicotine have the potential to cause a heart attack all on its own. So the nicotine that encases and hardens the arteries is like a series of tiny time bombs, each possessing the potential to kill.

What angered me most about the health connection between heart disease and smoking is that the anti-smoking crowd chose to downplay the impact of smoking on hardening of the arteries, emphysema, and the fact that nicotine acts like an adhesive in the arteries and veins as it glues itself to the walls of the arteries and veins over a period of years. The anti-smoking crowd has always favored the cancer argument since more people fear the "C" word than they do a heart attack. In the mind of their "market," almost everyone survives their first heart attack-almost everyone who gets cancer dies from cancer. If I was working with a limited ad budget, I guess I'd go for the "C" word, too. It does give you the most bang for the advertising buck.

My Two Heart Attacks

As one of those Washington, DC insiders, I live--and enjoy living--in the stress that is associated with working in the nation's capital. While I mentally enjoyed it, I never realized that my body didn't. When I had my first heart attack in June, 1999 I didn't even realize I'd suffered a heart attack, and didn't go to the hospital. I was attending a meeting in downtown DC with a couple of my associates at the Washington Times. I was convinced I was suffering from a simple case of heat stroke (it was about 103º that day). My blood pressure was normal. My cholesterol was low, and my lipids were good. I was not a candidate for a heart attack. Yet, the tests done at George Washington University Hospital when I had my triple bypass indicated that, at that time, I had the first of two. My second heart attack occurred on Christmas Eve, 2000. That one felt like a heart attack. I made a conscious decision not to spend Christmas in the hospital and ignored it as best I could...even though it knocked the legs out from under me for about three days.

I knew smoking was not healthy, and was convinced that my breathing problems were related to smoking, not my heart. I thought that I might be in the first stages of emphysema, but the thought never occurred to me that with cholesterol as low as mine, that I could have had a heart attack.

Adjusting My Life

I knew something had happened, but being a typical male who eschews doctors and believes he can overcome any physical problem that life drops in his lap, I began to adjust how I lived, how I walked, what I lifted and how far I carried it. Sometimes life was almost painless. At times, the pain, which was ever-conscious, would be no more severe than a gentle pressure in my chest. At other times the pain was so severe that it crushed my chest and radiated up into my jaw. At other times my left arm would go numb. I'd read enough by that time to be worried...but apparently not quite enough to do anything about it. You might say it's my Polish heritage, but my wife says it is simply my bullheaded male nature.

My wife noticed the subtle adjustments I was making in my life (and trying hard to do it in such a way that she would not notice). She made several appointments with my doctor. He made several appointments for me to take a stress test, which I knew would only lead to a cardiac catheterization. (My sister-in-law had a catheterization about 12 years ago which caused her to suffer a major heart attack that temporarily destroyed 90% of the front of her heart.) [Fortunately, she survived, and still does today.] I was determined that I was not going to have a cardiac catheterization...and, if I had any blockages, I would just as soon not know how bad they were.

Like most wives are prone to do, mine nagged me constantly to have a stress test. Finally, after she threatened to pack up and leave me because, as she said, "I refuse to sit here and watch you die," I agreed to have the test done.

Living in rural West Virginia, the only question which remained unanswered was, where do I go to have these tests done.

Vice President Dick Cheney provided the answer.

My wife and I were watching Fox News as Dick Cheney had an angioplasty at George Washington University Hospital. A couple of weeks later one of Cheney's team, Dr. Jonathan Reiner, inserted a pacemaker in the Vice President. Cheney was in and out of the hospital in a day. I decided these guys just might be good enough to keep me alive through a bypass if I needed one.

I told my wife that if she could get me in to see Cheney's cardiac surgeon, I'd consent to having the catheterization. Cheney's team: Wasserman, Adkins and Reiner became my cardiac team. Dr. Wassereman's cardiology resident, who did my initial workup, asked the first two questions everyone who walks into any doctor's office hears: "Do you smoke?" "How much do you smoke?" Then, after hearing the admission that you do, the doctor invariably says: "You need to quit." Then, just to make sure I understood what cigarettes do to the heart, I began to receive an education on the real damage caused by cigarette smoking. If the American Heart Association has been talking about nicotine coating the inside of the smoker's arteries and veins in their ads, I should have been reading those ads a long time ago-and so should you. In Dr. Reiner's examining room are charts containing dozens of photographs of contaminated arteries and veins. They look about as pretty as the photo (above) of the smoker's lung.

My Education About Nicotine

Like most of you, when I thought about nicotine (if I ever did), I thought of nicotine as the "addictive" additive in the cigarettes and not much else. I may have even wondered if the industry enhanced their product with an "addictive additive," but since it didn't cause me to increase my consumption of cigarettes, I dismissed it as just another one of those phony horror stories spawned by greedy lawyers hoping to gain massive monetary settlements from the tobacco industry that neither they nor their clients were entitled.

I quit smoking once for ten years and never had any "withdrawal" symptoms, nor craved a cigarette once I quit. (It's the same now. I quit smoking on July 16, 2001 and haven't craved a cigarette since that day.)

Nicotine is a natural adhesive. When a smoker inhales, we assume the smoke goes into the lungs and nowhere else. Likewise, we likely all make the assumption about the nicotine and tar contained within that smoke we inhale. Not true. Nicotine, like any drug, enters the blood stream and begins a journey through your veins and arteries to your heart. As it travels, it leaves small deposits along the wall of the veins and arteries. Traveling with the nicotine are both high density and low density lipids. Even without low density lipids, the nicotine you accumulate, if you are a heavy smoker, is more than enough to create major arterial blockage all by itself.

That was part of the education I received on July 17, 2001. Since my bypass, I have continued my own study on the affects of nicotine in the human artery, further confirming what I learned from Drs. Wasserman, Adkins and Reiner.

It was then that I started to get mad not only at the tobacco industry but the anti-smoking crowd who have chosen to tell only half the story about tobacco because the half they use "scares better" than the half which affected me and almost cost me my life.

We Are All Responsible For Our Own Bad Habits

If we knowingly engage in practices that are detrimental to our health--or that we have been told can kill us-we can't blame anyone other than ourselves if we engage in those practices. We've known since the late 1950s that if we smoke cigarettes, we are going to die prematurely. There have been warning labels on cigarette packs since the early 1960s. But, like any repetitious ad, after a while, we tend not to see them. I'd venture a guess that half the people who smoke today don't even know there is a warning label on the cigarette pack. That could be, of course, because half the people who "graduate" from America's schools today can't read well enough to understand what the warning label on the pack says. They buy their cigarettes by distinctive package design and not the product name. And, many smokers, looking only for the cheapest coffin nails, buy whatever is on sale.

There has been a very vocal campaign against cigarettes and the nasty habit of smoking for most of the 20th century. While many of those who have issued the most frightening warnings are ill-informed liberal busybodies who have devoted their lives to interfering with the lives of those whom the they feel interfere with their own. Yet, many of those who warned us about the dangers of smoking, and have issued the most coherent warnings about cigarettes are medical professionals who have, for years, had the evidence to substantiate their claims. But, since half of the warnings came from the liberals who believed it was, first and foremost, an issue was a superior rights, their primary interest was their right not to be imposed upon by smokers practicing their filthy habit around them, and not the health of those who smoked.

And, even though the tobacco industry had apparently uncovered and then concealed evidence of the detrimental affect of cigarettes on the human body, none of us who smoke (or have smoked), were raised in a news-void vacuum. We've watched the debate for the past 50 years. And, even if those with opposing views were evenly divided, it should have been clear to every smoker and everyone contemplating smoking that 50% of the people (many of whom were physicians) were advising us that smoking was detrimental to our health. Why should we think that, if we smoke-and contract emphysema, hardening of the arteries, or lung cancer-it is anyone's fault but our own? We are responsible for our own bad habits. I'd be willing to bet you that when you were young, at least once in your life when you were trying to justify doing something stupid with a friend or family member, your father or mother said: "If Jimmy jumped off the top of the Empire State Building, would you jump too?"

Then we have those who claim the cigarette industry is responsible for their health problems because once they got around to reading the warning label on the box, they were already addicted and couldn't quit. To that, I say "Baloney!" If you know what you are doing is going to kill you-and you have no desire to die-you will stop that habit the moment you realize it possesses the characteristics to kill you.

Nicotine is NOT Addictive...the Habit is Addictive

Most people who try to quit and can't blame nicotine. It isn't the nicotine. What is addictive is the habit of smoking. It's lighting a cigarette when you get out of bed in the morning; or having one with that first cup of coffee. It's having a cigarette when the telephone rings and it's your best friend or buddy filling you in on the "latest things." It's the habit of pushing away from the table after a good meal and lighting up. Once again, that cigarette goes good with the after dinner coffee.

Find a habit you can substitute for that cigarette and you will quickly discover you have no craving for a cigarette at all.

I have quit smoking three times in my life. The first time I quit for two years. The second time I quit for ten years. And, the last time, I quit for the rest of my life. Do I crave cigarettes? Nope. Not once. Am I around a heavy smoker? Yes. I haven't gotten my wife to quit yet...but, she will. She smokes two to three packs a day. Does she smoke around me? She tries to avoid me, but the reality is, she does. Do I desire a cigarette when she smokes? No, I don't.

Is it because I have such good "will power?"

No. Because I don't.

Put a package of Klondike bars in the freezer and see how long they last. Let my wife make some orange danish and suggest I eat only one. Within an hour or two, they'll be gone. I have no will power. None. Zip. Zil. Nil.

If nicotine was really addictive I couldn't quit.

Let me say it again...nicotine is NOT addictive...the HABIT of smoking is addictive. There's a difference. The "habit" is motion. It is the actions you take or do not take that form habits. It is the habits which are hard to break.

I've done two things to break my "habit."

First, I keep a bag of Tootsie Pops next to my computer, since I smoke most when I write. Since most of my smoking when I write books is done during the most contemplative segments of writing, I simply suck on a Tootsie Pop. Second, I bought a couple of pipes. Do I smoke them? Of course not. I chew on the stems. It beats chomping on Bic pens or #2 pencils. And it "looks" more adult.

Using The Patch

By the way...one additional thought in closing. If you are thinking about getting on the patch, or getting nicotine gum to "help you" through the rough period of quitting smoking, let me give you a piece of advise about these "medical aids"--forget it.

Nicotine is a drug that enters the blood stream and disposes of itself by coating your arteries and veins. It is as bad for you as the nicotine you inhale while smoking. Except the nicotine in the patch gets into your bloodstream faster. But, take my word for it...just because you need a prescription to buy it doesn't mean it doesn't end up in the same place as the nicotine you buy in that pack in Winston's, Marlboro's or Camels.

There is only one way to quit. It's called cold turkey.

You can do it.

Go to your local supermarket and buy a couple bags of Tootsie Pops. If you're a guy, go out and buy a cheap Dr. Grabow pipe (but NO tobacco). If you're a young lady, buy a ten-pack of Bic pens. You're now ready to quit smoking...and, more important, you are now ready to start planning the additional ten to twenty years you just added to your life. Congratulations.

Once again, you have my two cents worth on this subject.

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Just Say No
Copyright 2009 Jon Christian Ryter.
All rights reserved