Scared Straight New Yorkers

copyright 2009 Andy Mele

copyright 2009 Andy Mele

For three, long years, my friend N. and I have taken to catching up every few weeks for hour-long phone calls even though we both split our time between NY and FL. It’s not for lack of trying, but we are rarely in the same place at the same time …

She’s a real New Yorker versus me, the adapted New Yorker. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N. was my first friend when I moved to Manhattan in 2002. She showed me the ropes — including how to drive in NYC, where to shop, which deli sold the best liver wurst sandwich, where to have the 3-martini lunches, and how to find a doctor. Everyone should have an N. when they move to New York. If MasterCard decided to run an ad about moving to New York, you’d see the broker fee: $2500; MTA card: $2.50; Taxi: $50; Walking shoes: $125.

N. — priceless.

We had one of those power talks today, our sentences zigzagging across each other as we got excited about one topic and then moved onto another and then came full circle back to the beginning to start all over again.

There’s two questions that always come up, depending on whether I’m in the on or off smoking mode: 1) Are you still smoking? and 2) Have you still quit?

So, now that I’ve posted to the world that I went back on the patch (it’s been a whole week!), she had to ask Question #2.

And I, regrettably, had to fumble with my answer. Because, technically I have still quit. However, I’ve sneaked one or two over the course of the last few days not because I needed the nicotine but because of stressful moments where I thought I would pull my fingernails out with my teeth if I didn’t have just one puff. (All nails, happily, are still intact.)

N. and I used to smoke together. Correction: I smoked. N. dabbled.

After a health issue a few years back, she decided it just wasn’t worth the risk, even to dabble, and hasn’t had one since.

I confessed that I’d had a few, and then she asked if I’d seen the new CDC anti-smoking ad/video of cancer victim and former smoker Terrie Hall. Indeed I had. Another friend had messaged it to me. It’s quite graphic and tries to illicit sympathy.

N’s question: Is that type of ad effective?

The ad reminded me of the award-winning documentary, Scared Straight (1978), directed by Arnold Shapiro, in which juvenile delinquents were taken into prisons as a way to “scare” them into becoming positive members of society so they could avoid the horrors of incarceration. Along with Patch the Pony, Scared Straight was shown in our school. According to a 2002 study, scared straight programs actually increased crime and recidivism rates in those individuals who had gone through the program versus those who had not. The anti-smoking campaigns we had in school were of a similar nature. I recall my fascination with the cadaver lungs sealed in thick plastic bags on a large table with anti-smoking stickers and buttons. One lung was the color of a raspberry; the other as black as tar. It might have kept me from smoking until I picked up the habit in Germany nearly a decade later, but I didn’t really have any friends that smoked until I studied abroad. So I doubt it.

N. and I decided people don’t wake up one day and say, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life to start smoking!” They didn’t 100 years ago, nor 50 years ago, nor 20 years ago. People smoked because other people smoked, because of peer pressure, because of Bogie and McCall, and now because of Don and Megan. It used to be cool to smoke. Sexy to smoke. Intellectual to smoke.

Now, it’s a disgusting habit that separates you, god forbid you didn’t get the memo yet, from the rest of the world. You are officially in the uncool club — unless, of course, you look like the Drapers and live in the 1960s.

So what to do with those of us who are utterly addicted, would like to quit, but need something other than black lungs and voice boxes to help us quit for good?

Smoking cigarettes and committing crimes are not the same. I know. But on a philosophical level, they can be seen as acts of aggression. The former, against the self. The latter, against another.

Positive opportunities, encouragement, suggestions and alternatives to turning aggression on yourself or another is a great first step. Children growing up in abusive homes can be at higher risk of becoming adult abusers if not shown positive, healthy relationships in other families.

What has put me on the right path to quitting smoking is the positive, caring, encouraging support of my personal trainer, Michael Lenza. He’s shown me what I can do with a healthy body: run half-marathons and compete in triathlons. Or, even better, run just to run.

Quitting smoking is actually quite like being an athlete — you stumble, you fall, you try again, and always keep your eye on the goal line. Because when you reach it, it’s a beautiful thing.

The CDC should reconsider the scare tactic approach and consider uplifting, positive ads that show all the things one can do with healthy lungs. Quitting smoking might just become an epidemic.

copyright 2012 Patty Lenza

copyright 2012 Patty Lenza

© 2013 Lisa Rainwater