Whatever happened to the Marlboro Man?
How I started smoking—and stopping one day at a time
Born into a family of cigarette smokers in the ‘50s, growing up a child of smokers in the ‘60s and coming of age in the smokin’ hot ‘70s, it should come as no surprise that I developed a bad habit early on. I know it sounds trite, but it really did look cool. During those decades, cigarette smoking was prevalent and viewed as sophisticated and suave. Although health studies had begun to advise against the practice, my parents still smoked, as did most of their friends. Grampa smoked, too, along with Uncle Sid, and while Gramma Fay lectured about the ills of smoking, her own daughter, my mom, puffed away. Even though my parents issued dire warnings about nicotine, tobacco and cancer, it was difficult to take them seriously while watching them inhale, blowing smoke rings around the words.
By 14, I was hooked and by 16 “allowed” to smoke in the house. “What am I supposed to do?” my mother would ask when Gramma objected to my newfound addiction. “He’s gonna do it anyhow,” she reasoned. “Might as well let him smoke at home where we can keep an eye on him.” Most of my pals smoked, too (my sister didn’t start until college), and we met before class each morning, at the “smoking corner” just off the school’s property, walking off-campus for lunch to buy cigs in the machine at a local hamburger stand, where nobody cared to object.
On January 2, 1971 Congress took its anti-smoking initiative “one step further” and passed the “Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act,” banning the Marlboro Man from television and radio (www.wikipedia.org), but by then, well—the damage had already begun. Naturally, I didn’t see it as a “problem”—and neither did my friends, who were also experimenting with smoking weed, which made me want to inhale more. So I did.
With the advent of Disco, huffing began to accompany puffing, but I never considered quitting, choosing instead to sign on with the Winston-Salem Company, who were happy to supply me with cigarettes, once I became a professional actor and was in the public eye. “It’s good for them, and it’s good for you,” my publicist said in 1982, when I was at the height of my 15 minutes of “Fame” and in a position to influence a new generation. I briefly considered the ramifications, but was thrilled to see cartons arrive at my door in Los Angeles each month without having to pay.
“That’s how they get you,” Gramma would warn, but I didn’t care, even when she offered to buy me a car in exchange for giving it up. Thinking myself invincible, I remained unconcerned even as the company doctor claimed that I was in the “beginning stages” of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which I shrugged off, while opening my second pack of the day. “We all die from something,” I stupidly announced. “At least I’ll look cool doing it.”
I was hospitalized in 1991 for an unrelated illness, but my surgeon suggested that I use my stay to “detox and get the nicotine out of my system,” which gave me pause, since by then I was having trouble breathing and coughing constantly, although loathe to admit it, even to Mom, who still smoked. In fact, my mother smoked until it killed her eight years ago. “She’s in the end stages of COPD,” her doctor told me. “What’s it going to take to get you to stop?” As Mom lay dying in my arms, she pleaded. “Don’t let this happen to you.”
I began to do research and tried a few things, but when I stumbled across “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) while searching for free online hypnosis, a light went on. I’d tried hypnosis years earlier, with no effect, but the idea that someone could plant new habits in my subconscious without my having to work at it appealed. And so, I began listening with earphones an hour a day for a week, then a month, then three. “I’m not sure if it’s a ‘placebo effect’ or actually working,” I enthused to my sister, “but I haven’t cheated, not once!” I could hear her smoking on the other end of the phone but refrained from comment, not wanting to be that guy. “Who cares?” she replied, “as long as it’s working. How long has it been?”
Six months. It’s been six months. I didn’t think it possible, but my cough is all but gone and my breathing less than labored, although the desire to smoke still comes and goes. It hasn’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but my desire to beat the tobacco companies at their own insidious game, coupled with knowing that I can actually beat an addiction considered to be one of the worst the world has ever known, gives me strength to get through each day. “One is too many and a thousand is never enough,” I saw online somewhere when searching for inspiration.
As for the original “Marlboro Man?” Cigarette pitchman David McClean died of lung cancer in 1995. ‘Nuff said.