The Last Camel Cigarette

I just smoked the last Camel cigarette in this pack. The fact that I scanned the empty pack says a lot about how a spur-of-the-moment decision I made over a month ago has turned into an interesting study of addiction and my own personal weaknesses. Before I bought that random pack of Camels back in October or so, with the exception of literally two or three occasions when my band was playing in Ybor City, I hadn’t smoked a cigarette since 1999. What followed since I bought that pack has been interesting.

I wasn’t new to smoking. I smoked for years, in phases between which there were periods when I quit. I first started smoking Salem Lights 100’s when I was a teenager. They were my aunt Loretta’s brand, and I started by swiping hers. I smoked those for a few years until I was smoking so many a day that the menthol in the cigarettes was causing me to cough up blood. This started around 1980 or so. Needless to say, the blood gave me a good reason to quit, and I did for a few years.

By the mid-1980’s I had started working second shift in a cotton mill and spent many evenings after work at a cousin’s house, hanging out and drinking beer. Eventually, the beers led to one bummed Marlboro. Then another. Within a few weeks I was bumming so many cigarettes that I felt guilty, and so I started buying my own. I smoked Marlboros for several years, until I finally forced myself to quit smoking again.

I started back smoking when I worked in a warehouse in the late 1980’s with old friends of mine. The preferred cigarette in that bunch was Camel Lights. It started largely the same way as the Marlboro phase. A bummed cigarette here and there, followed by so many bummed cigarettes that I just started buying my own again. This turned into my longest smoke phase. I smoked Camel Lights until 1999, when I was faced with the fact that my new wife didn’t like me smoking and wanted me to quit, combined with the fact that Camel Lights topped $2 a pack. It just didn’t make any sense to me at that point. I finally had a couple of compelling reasons to lay them down once and for all.

Quitting is hard. If you’ve ever smoked, you know this. If you have never been a smoker, you don’t know how silly your admonitions of “Why don’t you just quit?” are to a smoker. It’s just not that simple. As I understand it, there are three addictions you have to break when you stop smoking. First is the physical addiction to the tobacco. Second is the psychological addiction, in that you feel like you just need a cigarette sometimes, often to soothe your nerves. Third is the habitual addiction; that repetitive act of having a cigarette between your fingers and taking time to relax and smoke the cigarette. I’ve heard that it’s as hard to stop smoking cigarettes as it is to break a cocaine  addiction. Anyone who’s ever smoked will know that sounds about right.

I stopped in 1999 by sheer willpower. I didn’t taper off. I didn’t use some program. I just stopped. I knew before I tried that my mind would play tricks on me to get me to light up. The first thing that happens is that you get really irritable. I summed it up rather well with an observation that became a phrase I would use through the years. “Did you ever notice that when you try to quit smoking, everybody around you becomes an asshole?” If you’ve ever stopped smoking, that will be funny to you. Basically put, I accepted the fact that my mind and body would come up with a dozen different legitimate reasons to light up a cigarette, and I decided I wouldn’t fall for it. I just said “no” to my urges. And within a few weeks, the urges slacked off. It would be a few years before I could drink a beer without wanting a cigarette, but I never bought another pack or smoked another cigarette again until a random Marlboro Light I smoked in Ybor City, Florida in 2009. But that cigarette made no impression, and I was never tempted to start smoking again.

Joe Camel

So. What changed to make me buy that pack of Camel Blues (that’s what they call Camel Lights now)? I don’t know, really. My fiance always kept a pack of Marlboro Lights around, and would smoke one on rare occasions. So rare, in fact, that the last pack she bought was probably over a year old when she smoked the last one. I don’t know what compelled me to buy the Camel Blues. I guess I never much liked the Marlboro Lights, and I sort of wondered if I disliked all cigarettes, or just certain brands. I’d always loved the flavor of Camel Lights. With that in mind, I plunked down $7 for a pack of Camel Blues one night at a Walgreen’s (I believe there were a few sips of whiskey involved with that decision, as well).

That first cigarette was wonderful. When you don’t smoke often, you quickly realize why the Native Americans considered tobacco to be a sacred herb. If you don’t smoke, you can get quite a buzz from a cigarette. So much so that it makes you ponder certain things. This all started out innocently enough. The plan was to only smoke cigarettes on occasion, and that’s how it played out during late October and November. I believe I only smoked one cigarette the first week I had the pack. Two cigarettes the second week. Before long I was smoking three or so a week, and had already made up my mind that I wasn’t going to buy another pack. I had answered my original question, and yes, I still liked the flavor of Camel Lights.

On another spur-of-the-moment impulse, though, I bought a second pack of Camel Blues. That was a little over a week ago. As I mentioned earlier, I just smoked the last cigarette in that pack. I intend for that to be the last cigarette altogether. Earlier today I found myself pondering that I only had 3 cigarettes left, and that it might be time for another pack. After all, Christmas will be here soon. It’s the holidays. And besides, I’d already committed to quitting for good starting in January during my official after-holiday re-boot. But that’s the way a smoker thinks. Of course I recognized that old tactic. My brain was already playing tricks on me. It seemed perfectly logical to get a third pack, and to just smoke those through Christmas. After all, I’m quitting again in January. Why not one last hoorah?

That’s how the addiction starts. Given my past, I know how prone I am to follow this particular siren. That’s why I’m so determined not to.

This was an interesting experiment that played out exactly like I thought it might. I doubted I could keep my smoking down do the occasional once-a-week cigarette. So it’s time to put these away for good. There’s no Joe Camel to flip off this time on my way out the proverbial door. So I’ll just toss this empty pack in the trash and be done with it. But even as I type this, I keep thinking of valid reasons to buy that third pack and smoke. Just through Christmas. Just until New Years. It only makes sense start fresh with a new year and a new resolve.

Indeed, it does make sense. And that’s precisely the reason I won’t buy that third pack. Nice try, Joe. But if I’ve learned nothing else from this “experiment”, I’ve learned that while I may remember you, I’ve left the reservation. If I needed a reminder of why it’s a good idea to walk away from my precious Camel Lights once and for all, it can probably be summed up best by the fact that every time I’ve smoked a cigarette I’ve come back into the house and brushed my teeth and washed my hands and face. It really is a vile habit. Except for the addiction and the buzz (which fades with repeated use), I really don’t know why anyone would want to do that to themselves.

Bye bye, Joe. You won’t be missed. Well… a couple of weeks from now you won’t be missed.

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