Saturday, December 20, 2008
President-elect should come clean about cigarettes.
For a candidacy built on transparency and straightforward messaging, the Obama juggernaut is missing a wonderful opportunity to send direct aid and comfort to struggling addicts everywhere. All the president-elect has to do is admit that he is still struggling to quit smoking cigarettes.
It doesn’t take a campaign genius to understand the reasoning during the primaries: Smoking, something now done behind closed doors, or while leaning against a dark wall out back, was not something Obama’s handlers were eager to have taken up as a topic of discussion with respect to their candidate. The U.K. Guardian maintains that certain opinion polls found Obama’s smoking to be a greater hindrance to his election than the color of his skin.
The recent release of candid black and white photos from Obama’s college years, showing him casually smoking, has brought the issue back to the forefront. “It is a sign of our anxious, needy condition,” opined the Guardian, “that Americans are willing to overlook the president-elect's filthy habit.”
While Nancy Reagan banned smoking in the White House years ago, the cigar-smoking Clinton seems to have gotten a pass, cigars in the popular culture being to cigarettes as the occasional brandy is to a six-pack. While the New York Times debates whether graphic warning labels only increase people’s desire to smoke, nobody seems to be asking whether a president who sneaks out to the Rose Garden to field-strip a Marlboro will serve as a role model or an enabler for fellow smokers.
In a separate article in the Guardian, Alexander Chancellor writes that “Obama appears to have tried really hard to stop, and says he had cut his smoking down to the occasional fag bummed from a member of his staff; but he still hasn’t give up completely, despite being a fitness fanatic who spends more than an hour a day in the gym.” As every addicted smoker who ever tried to quit has discovered, nobody ever sneaks by for long on two or three bummed cigarettes a day. “You either smoke none or you smoke 20,” writes Queenan. “There is no middle ground.”
More to the point, President-Elect Obama is missing out on an opportunity to speak out on a major public health issue. By coming clean about his struggle to overcome his nicotine addiction, Obama would give renewed hope and courage to struggling smokers and ex-smokers everywhere. If Obama, the icon of cool, the Unruffled One, cannot make good on a promise to his wife to quit smoking, then quitting smoking must be one hell of an undertaking.
As Chancellor writes: “The most striking thing about it all is that a man as calm, controlled and disciplined as the next president should have so far failed in his efforts to set himself free. At least I can take comfort from the fact that I am in the most distinguished company. But I also intend to join him in his New Year resolution to stop smoking, mainly in my case because it’s just too expensive.”
Photograph: Lisa Jack/Bloomberg News/Time
addiction smoking nicotine