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Published: 12/11/2008

Quitting's easy; I did it hundreds of times

PRESIDENT-elect Barack Obama has scores of people who do nothing but give him advice. Choosing the next secretary of state? He had a team for that. Need a United Nations ambassador? He's covered. White House chef? Probably has at least a dozen folks working on that one. What dog to get daughters Malia and Sasha? Practically everyone has an opinion on that.

Heck, he's probably got advisers to tell him who to hire to give him advice on who to hire.

That being the case, you might think me presumptuous when I say I have advice the next president can really use and might not be able to get elsewhere. But I'm not just blowing smoke. In fact, my advice for Mr. Obama is about just that - smoking, or, rather, quitting smoking.

For months, Mr. Obama tried to do the impossible: quit smoking in the middle of a presidential campaign. Fixing the economy would be easy by comparison, so it's no surprise that he flamed out on occasion. People should just lighten up about whether he's lit up lately. Pressure like that never helped anyone quit.

I, on the other hand, am an expert on quitting. I smoked for more than 35 years and quit literally hundreds of times. More to the point, the last time I quit was seven years, six months, and one day ago - exactly. I'll stack those qualifications against anyone.

Which brings me to my first point, Mr. President-to-be: Ignore all advice, however well-intended, from nonsmokers. Only guilt resides there. These people may care about you, but they invariably think quitting is easy, a simple matter of will power. Quit, they tell you, because smoking's a vile, filthy habit that will kill you and, in the meantime, makes your breath and clothes smell bad. Quit for the kids. Quit to set a good example for the country. Quit because smoking in the White House will forever be associated with President Clinton's cigar.

These are lousy reasons to quit. Nonsmokers, even loving relatives, just don't understand the pleasures of smoking: how a cigarette can calm the spirit and focus the mind during international crises, the satisfaction of lighting up after sticking it to some petty dictator. More important, they've never heard that nicotine-laced voice in their head railing against other people running your life and maintaining that you really like smoking. To the truly addicted, "Nick" is more persuasive than all the friends and relatives in the world.

Which leads to my second point, although you probably should answer this question before worrying about those annoying loved ones who have your best interests at heart: Do you really want to quit? Don't ask this if you've been starving Nick. Withdrawal makes him very persuasive and he shouldn't have a vote in the decision.

If you don't answer honestly, you're sure to fail and eventually someone's going to catch you. You've already kinda skirted the question on TV a couple of times in recent days. Do you really want Michelle to find out you've fallen off the wagon when she sees a YouTube video of you sneaking a drag behind a bush in the Rose Garden?

Assuming you want to quit, you need to determine what sort of smoker you are. Some folks can put down that last cigarette and never look back. They deserve a special place in a world created by Dante, and if you're one of these nonaddictive types, shame on you, put that pack in the trash, and get to work on the economy.

Some are occasional smokers. Often these are former smokers who have given up the habit except under very special circumstances. One characteristic these folks share is that the cigarettes they smoke are always someone else's. I had a friend in college who fit that description: He smoked only when he drank, and he never bought his own pack.

Most people, including me and, I suspect, you, oh soon to be leader of the Free World, fall into a third group - the easily addicted masses cigarettes were made for in the first place. Some are so susceptible to nicotine's fatal attractions that they schedule their whole lives around cigarettes.

A college friend - not the same one who "borrowed" cigarettes when he was drunk - kept a pack next to his bed at night. He often woke in the middle of the night and would have a quick smoke before going back to sleep. In the morning he lit up before he got out of bed.

I believe, el presidente in waiting, that you are among the redeemable addicts. If you weren't, that video would already be on YouTube. But I'm betting you've already tried cold turkey and gradually cutting back, and I know you've tried nicotine gum - how's that working out for you? I suspect the patch might not be the ticket either, and I can tell you from personal experience that the patch doesn't always silence "Nick," and smoking while wearing it is most uncool, medically speaking.

So, here's my contribution to the "nobody asked me but" advice pool you're probably drowning in: drugs.

I'm not kidding. Antidepressants were remarkably effective at muffling my inner Nick when he'd whisper, "Be a man, a Marlboro Man."

And considering all the things there you're gonna have to be depressed about when you take office, having a reason to take a feel-good pill may not be the worst thing in the world. If you start right now, you could be practically smoke (and drug) free by Jan. 20.

There is one thing, however. There's really no such thing as free advice. Mine, however, can be had cheap. If - no when - you quit, all I ask is an invitation to a pickup game. Gimme a call; I'm in the book.

Kendall F. Downs is a Blade associate editor.

Contact him at: kdowns@theblade.com



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