Friday, June 24, 2011

Smokers' Lungs

A non-smoker's and a smoker's lungs

To deter smoking, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed putting five gruesome graphics on cigarette packages. Some experts believe this will not be an effective deterrent. When asked his opinion on the FDA proposal by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David J. Linden, author of Compass of Pleasure, said studies have shown the effectiveness of anti-smoking warnings wear off fairly rapidly. This is at least partly because the circuitry  of the brain of an addicted person is permanently rewired. There is no such thing as ex-alcoholics, for example; rather, there are alcoholics who no longer drink, just as there are nicotine addicts who no longer smoke. Perhaps addicts need to understand that they are always going to be addicts; the goal is not to be somebody you are not. It is hard enough to be an addict who successfully successively says no; to be an addict who is not an addict is impossible because your brain knows better. You and your brain have to be on the same page or the book is not going to make sense.

Doug McKenzie-Mohr, a Canadian environmental psychologist works with communities to instill lasting behavioral change. The Boston Globe reported McKenzie-Mohr believes such information campaigns, like the FDA's,  “have virtually no likelihood of changing behavior.” He apparently knows other ways to help the addicted.

All in the Family

I am the ninth child in a family of sixteen (counting my Irish- and Norwegian-American parents), all of whom survived into adulthood except the second child who died in the diphtheria epidemic following the First World War. Everyone in the family, except me, became smokers. How I escaped has always puzzled me. One possible explanation is that in grade school our class visited the Boston Museum of Science, where I saw a smoker’s and a non-smoker's lungs suspended in formaldehyde in a glass display case. I think the display was not far from the museum entrance, so it was hard to miss. Children are very impressionable and highly educable. I’m not certain I learned my lesson about the evils of smoking from that ghastly smoker’s lung I saw as a child, but I think having a smoker’s lung at the entrance of every grade school in America might  be a far more effective way of deterring smoking than putting gruesome graphics on cigarette packages. By the time a kid  takes a cigarette out of a package, somewhere between the ages of eleven and say fifteen, it is already too late. Peer pressure and the billions of dollars the cigarette industry have spent, directly or indirectly, to addict kids, will have their effect, and as for adults who have been smoking for years, forget it, because that's what most of them will do, forget it, as studies of anti-smoking warnings have shown. The chances are a smoker’s palpable lung near the entrance of grade schools will do more to deter kids from smoking than a hundred gruesome graphics on cigarette packages. If the lung I witnessed once when I was about nine or ten made such a difference, what would it do witnessed over and over again, K through 12?

In addition to being heavy smokers, my family were also heavy drinkers of both alcohol and coffee—strong black espresso-like coffee the morning after. Following my father’s and older brothers’ examples, I began drinking coffee in the morning at about the age of eight and was so strung out on caffeine  by the time I was fifteen that I knew I had to break the habit and I did, but I continued getting an occasional fix on coffee ice cream, which habit I did not break until I was in my early twenties. I might not have been able to break the caffeine addiction if I had been addicted to nicotine. Since addiction to caffeine lays the groundwork for all the other addictions, reducing its occurrence could have far reaching benefits. As the twig is bent, so shall the tree grow. In Portsmouth, Ohio, now notorious as the Oxycontin capital of America, how many have graduated from caffeine to nicotine to oxycodone? Instead of using the purloined Indian Head rock to teach kids in south-central Ohio about their cultural heritage, as state representative Todd Book preposterously proposed, how about having a smoker’s lung at the entrance not just of each grade school, but of the middle school and high school too? Maybe if some of our addicted politicians—addicted to dishonesty as  well as to drugsand their puppet masters would will their lungs to the public schools, they would be doing more in death for future generations than they ever did in life.