Conversations on Quitting the Cancer Stick

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This is a post about smoking, which I wrote to precede my sunshiny Lions wrapup. It is randomly scattered with pictures of the events and people referred to, in part for context, but also so you don't have to scroll through all the "fun" shots without perspective.

In advertising, we pick up a lot of habits - "creative" habits, mostly - that we occasionally are and aren't proud of, depending on our mood and who's looking. The Cannes Lions becomes a magnifier of all those habits: there, trapped in paradise for a week, people don't just drink until 5 in the morning; they often smoke as if all the weight of the world depends on it.

"Last night I knew it was time to go home because I started chainsmoking," complained Shannon Stephaniuk of Glossy. "I hate smoking more than anything else in the world!"

I suppose I believe her. I've never seen Shannon pick up a cigarette, not once, and I smoke a great deal, which usually outs the casual smokers in party atmospheres.

Anyway, this Cannes phenomenon leads to a lot of semi-casual conversation about why we all started smoking in the first place, which naturally drifts over to quitting and efforts to get there.

This is why I started smoking (in earnest, not counting the flirtation I had in college when my best friend gave me a pack of Vanilla Dreams for my 18th birthday): to eke a promotion out of a boss who only discussed "the future" with his subordinates during smoke breaks. I was 19, maybe 20.

"You know what Gabriel Garcia Marquez did to quit?" began Draftfcb ECD Mark Fiddes, rather grandly, at a beachside luncheon for production firm Mad Cow. "Gabriel Garcia Marquez buried his last packet of cigarettes. Big mound. It was something he could walk by and look at every day."

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"That's how he quit?" I asked incredulously. Garcia Marquez was a heavy smoker - six packs a day at worst, I think.

"That's how," Mark said smugly.

We posited that maybe it's better to create your own personal psychological trigger for trigging, like a little cigarette grave, than it is to try getting on the patch or something. Maybe quitting smoking, like quitting drinking, works best when you have a symbol to gaze at. Patches just aren't that romantic.

A mentor of mine, who's about 67 years old, once told me I worry too much about life, and if I can't let anything else go, I ought at least to stop beating myself up about smoking. She said she quit when she was in her 30s, so since then I've relaxed and let that be the mantra: I'll quit at 30. But now, listening to Marquez's more poetic shucking of The Habit, I wondered if my peg was strong enough to withstand my aggravations, my anxiousness, my fear of having to stand wordless in the middle of a party with no viable reason to be alone besides compulsive playing of Bejeweled.

"I couldn't handle the idea of never smoking again," Mark went on, "so I am on a long break."

"A long break," I repeated, thinking, yeah - the idea of never smoking again is terrifyingly final.

"I bought a pack of Marlboro Reds - my favourites - and stuck them in the freezer. I told myself I'd pick them up again when I'm 60." Mark beamed. "I got them before they started putting those 'smoking kills' notices on the package, so they're nice and clean."

"Collector's items!" I said. "And maybe when you're 60, you won't want to smoke regularly again. Maybe you'll take one hard drag, reminisce about the orgy days and put them back in the freezer."

"Maybe," he replied enigmatically, folding his hands in his lap. "I'm looking forward to it, though."

The conversation picked itself up again at the Shots party that same night. This time, I was with Adland's Ask Wappling, who lit one of her unfiltered cigarettes and offered me a filtered one from a Hello Kitty cigarette case she keeps around. "Take as many as you want. Filtered cigarettes make me sick," she said.

"Then why do you carry a whole separate case of them?"

Ask traveled around a lot as a kid because her dad did Very Important Things for IBM. Because of that, and the times, her mother was a breed of person that doesn't quite exist anymore: a genuine hostess. She didn't smoke, but kept cigarettes frozen in the freezer just in case a guest wanted one.

"I picked it up from her," Ask said, gesturing to the cigarette case as she flipped it shut, its friendly pink cat face peering up at me. She also added that she and her boyfriend never smoke in front of their daughter - it's a secret the girl doesn't know about. They don't want her to think this is something adults just do by default, something she'll inevitably do too.

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I thought back to Paris, how smoking there is so prevalent that baby strollers are often draped in what looks like rain slickers, a guard against both rain and the deathly sweet haze of nicotine-laced carbon monoxide. Probably wouldn't aid your perspective much if your parents didn't smoke. Or maybe it would? ...Unless you discovered they smoked incognito.

We went through a number of cigarettes, sometimes sharing each other's or bumming. I couldn't smoke Ask's unfiltered cigarettes; they hurt.

The thread finally found its end the next afternoon, on a sunshine-drenched table on the Majestic terrace. I was sitting with Finch Factor's Kerry Finch, wrapping up my interview with Amsterdam Worldwide ECD Richard Gorodecky. Richard doesn't drink or smoke, and I guess I assumed he never did. But shortly after telling us his Patagonia shirt is SPF 50 (which I am still secretly jealous of), the topic swung back around and he admitted he had drunk and smoked, once upon a time.

"All you have to do is start Allen Carr's The Easy Way to Stop Smoking," he said with a shrug. "Once I understood that the reason why I needed to smoke was just to relieve myself of the need to smoke, the whole thing seemed stupid.

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"For awhile after, being around cigarette smokers didn't bother me. Now I don't even like that," he added.

"What if you smoke because it gives you a good reason to be standing alone?" I asked.

Richard considered this. "That's interesting," he began. Then, "once you know why you smoke, the whole thing seems stupid."

"Maybe you need to find a personal psychological trigger to stop," I said, thinking it might be a good moment to posit the theory I fooled with alongside Mark Fiddes.

"I found a good trigger," said Finch Factor's Sarah Taylor, who'd suddenly appeared from another place entirely and sat down beside us.

"What's that?" we all asked at once.

"My lung collapsed," she said.

There must have been a collective gulp. She recounted a complicated story that stretched from Vietnam, where she began smoking its stubby cheap cigarettes; to Australia, where she tried selling the bucketload she got on the beach, but couldn't because they were ugly looking, so she smoked the lot of them herself. It brought her to a habit of maybe 40 cigarettes a day.

"I probably would have died if my roommate didn't walk into the apartment and find me lying there, facedown under a towel," she said, laughing brightly. "But yeah, after something like that, you just lose the taste for it."

"You'd be crazy not to," Richard sniffed. It was an admiring sniff.

I don't know if it was the gravity of that, or the fact that the festival was over, but that pretty much brought the ongoing cigarette reflections to an end for the week.

I've had a couple cigarettes since then. I average about half a pack a day, close to a full pack on particularly dire occasions. But given that I've started the conversation about quitting a handful of times, I feel responsible for what I've been told. The only reason I can think of for continuing to smoke is that, until something critical happens (coin-toss!), it's easier to do it than not to.

Under the harsh light of summer in the south, only slightly brighter than the menagerie of ads shone in theatrical glory, that is starting to ring a little stupid.

About the photos (not including the ad), from top to bottom: Mark Fiddes, at Mad Cow party; Shannon and Ask, together at a Draftfcb cocktail; and Richard Gorodecky during his interview.

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