Dave Barry

I (cough) was a teenage smoker!

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Sept. 17, 1995.)

As a ranking national opinion-maker (currently in 1,539th place), I would like to do my part to get teenagers to stop smoking cigarettes. Ready? Here goes:

You teenagers stop smoking right now!! There! Did that do the trick?

I didn't think so. Your modern teenager is not about to listen to advice from an old person, defined as ``a person who remembers when there was no Velcro.''

I can understand this. I was a young person once, shortly after the polar ice caps retreated, and I distinctly recall believing that virtually all adults were clueless goobers. Exhibit A: their hats. If you young people look at photographs taken 35 or 40 years ago, you will note that the adults, no matter how nice the weather is, are wearing major formal headgear -- for the men, the serious Mr. Businessman model, the kind of hat that makes everybody who puts one on, including Boy George, look like the late Fred MacMurray; for the women, all kinds of comical, ottoman-sized fashion contraptions, sometimes festooned with enough artificial fruits and vegetables to feed an artificial family of four.

We young people were not inclined to take advice from people who voluntarily looked like that. So we tended to disregard their rules, of which there were many. For example, in those days, there was a rule that you absolutely had to wait for one full hour after eating before you could go swimming, because otherwise you would get a cramp and drown. This rule was strictly enforced by wristwatch-wearing moms. Apparently there was a required course in Mother School wherein leading medical authorities showed, with diagrams, that if a person were to eat a single saltine cracker and then wait only 59 minutes before going into the water, this person would instantly cramp up and drown, even if the water were only ankle deep.

Naturally, we young people broke this rule every chance we got. I will reveal here, for the first time, that on one occasion, when I was approximately 9, Neil Thompson and I ate hot dogs under water. We survived and we realized, as most young people realize, that we were invulnerable.

Of course, grownups in those days told us that we shouldn't smoke. But it was hard to take them seriously, because most of them smoked. Also, cigarettes were advertised on television in commercials that stressed the amazing scientific advances that had been incorporated into modern cigarettes. For example, Parliament cigarettes had a commercial wherein perky singers informed the public that:

``Every Parliament gives you ... extra margin!/ The filter's recessed and made to stay/ A neat, clean, quarter-inch away!''

Think of it! A recessed filter! No way you could get cancer from a cigarette like that!

My first cigarette was a Kent (with the Micronite filter, whatever Micronite was). Louie Rotando gave it to me one night in the summer I turned 15. Words cannot describe how cool and mature I felt, inhaling the smoke, then exhaling it through my nose, then inhaling, then exhaling, then -- in a major display of mature coolness -- lying down in the dirt and retching until dawn.

That was my body's way of telling me that it personally did not care for cigarettes. But I did not listen to my body: I was determined to become a smoker. My reasoning was the same then as it is for teenagers today:

Arguments against smoking: It's a repulsive addiction that slowly but surely turns you into a gasping, gray-skinned, tumor-ridden invalid, hacking up brownish gobs of toxic waste from your one remaining lung.

Arguments for smoking: Other teenagers are doing it.

Case closed! Let's light up! That's what I did, and I eventually reached the point where not only could I tolerate cigarettes, but I actually needed them so badly that if I ran out of my own, late at night in the newspaper office, I would root around in the wastebaskets and smoke stale, stinking, spit-stained butts discarded by people I didn't even like.

Of course, you young smokers starting out today have years to go before you reach that level of coolness and maturity. Meanwhile, I'm sure you don't want to hear any lectures from the likes of me. So I'm going to just shut up now.