I was a skinny 13-year-old the first time I dragged a match across the scratchy edge of a matchbook and touched it to the end of a Marlboro cigarette. The slim length of the smoke captured between my lips, I closed my eyes and breathed in the acrid aroma of tobacco alight, trying not to cough.
The year was 1961, long before the time when surgeon general warnings accompanied discouraging glances from mothers and other hovering figures disapproving of this habit. Everyone smoked. It was a distinguishing characteristic among long-legged, black-haired European women who oozed the kind of sexuality we pubescent American boys dogged after and it was the hallmark of the leather-jacket-wearing hot-car-driving older boys we aspired to be.
Smoking was the after-touch of a sensual movie scene and it was the badge of being cool. I first lit up unaware of the inherent toxicity of the habit; I certainly had no clue that dragging on cigarettes, even for the 13 years that I was addicted to nicotine, would have more farther-reaching effects on my body than almost any other habit.
I quit after I graduated law school in 1973. It was then, entering into my adult life and all the responsibility and adventure that came with it, that I made the conscious decision to engage only in vices that would give me some beautiful pleasure without the high price to my health that cigarettes demanded.
Smoking gave nothing to me except the shakes when I tried to stop. For a month after my last toke, I walked around with Tootsie Roll Pops hanging out of both sides of my mouth just to simulate the habit while I dragged through withdrawal.
I enjoy an occasional gin martini on a sunlit or grey afternoon and there’s nothing better than a Creekstone steak blood red on the inside. Those are indulgences I can afford because I bookend them with so much more healthy intake of veggies and oily fish that the balance is skewed in my favor by a long-shot.
For decades, I’ve sold cigarettes in my stores because that’s what groceries have always done – make available items that the consumer demands and which society has deemed permissible, despite evidence to the contrary. This month, I acted on a hunch I’ve harbored for years – I pulled all remaining inventory from my shelves and announced that Hiller’s Markets will no longer sell cigarettes.
I’m not trying to lecture, believe me. Every person has the supreme right to choose their habits and behaviors. It’s just that no one has the right to kill others — overtly, subtly or otherwise without cause. Simple proximity to a smoker is not good enough reason to risk death.
Discontinuing cigarette sales is going to cost me a quarter of a million dollars a year in income. And it might cost me even more if I lose customers who are angry that I won’t enable their habit.
Change is easy for no one, so the realization that Hiller’s won’t be an outlet for this vice might hit hard at first. But by next month, my stores’ shelves of smokes will be a distant memory as we move on to more important matters.
That’s ok. There are so many statistics about how smoking not only destroys an individual’s lungs and sets him up for cancer and other deadly ailments – but the secondhand smoke, the off-air breathed in by anyone around a smoker, is just as deadly.
Babies of smokers have higher rates of medical problems than the children of non-smokers. And now there’s research indicating that even the unborn babies of someone who was surrounded by secondhand smoke risks the negative effects of this habit.
That’s a long channel of impact.
I’m glad none of my sons smoke. I wasn’t the best example, smoking for 13 years as I did, well before they were born, and then later allowing the sale of this crutch in my seven stores. It wasn’t something we spoke of; I discouraged adamantly the obvious illegal drugs, issuing and maintaining a no-exceptions policy in my house to marijuana use or even experimentation.
The heinous part of all of this is that cigarettes are legal. So is alcohol and God knows I love a good drink. I sell foods that contain trans-fats. Yes, there are vices for sale at Hiller’s that, if abused, could certainly be the downfall of even the kindest customer. But they will only be hurting themselves.
I won’t sell fish raised in China. I won’t sell meat clinging to filthy pens and stuffed to the point of illness. I won’t sell produce grown in valleys where cattle run-off makes it susceptible to e.coli and worse.
I maintain the highest standards at every point where I know I can make an impact on the community around me. When you’re a leader, however slight and humble, your every move makes a statement.
So I won’t sell cigarettes anymore. You can do whatever you want and you can hate me for having scruples. But as Zechariah Chafee, Jr., wrote in the Harvard Law Review in 1919, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”