Obama Lights Up

I will be damned.

The President-Elect has a flaw and Tom Brokaw brought him out of the closet about it last Sunday on ‘Meet the Press.’  The issue has legs. It is taking off running.

Noting that the White House was a no-smoking zone, Tom Brokaw asked the President-Elect during a televised interview, a week ago Sunday, “Have you stopped smoking?”

“I have,” Obama replied, smiling broadly. “But there are times where I have fallen off the wagon.”

“Wait a minute,” Brokaw interjected, critically, “that means you haven’t stopped.”

“I’ve done a terrific job, under the circumstances, of making myself much healthier and I think that you will not see any violations of these rules in the White House,” Obama replied.

No, no, no, Barack. That just won’t fly as an answer.

In fact, how many cigarettes have you smoked since?

Earlier this year, in an interview for its November issue, Obama told Men’s Health magazine that he wished he had more time for staying fit, BUT that he still occasionally smoked a cigarette. Obama says he manages to squeeze in 45-minute workouts, six days a week, but wishes his exercise sessions were longer.

Obama said in that interview that he had bummed a cigarette a couple of times during the campaign. “But I figure, seeing as I’m running for president, I need to cut myself a little slack,” he said. And the doctor told me that losing weight is very important, but it is stressful, so forgive me if I have a few pieces of chocolate cake while I do.

In St. Louis last June, Obama acknowledged he was a smoker, and admitted to “falling off the wagon” then also. Two months later, he confessed the same thing to Chris Matthews in a Hardball interview. Thus, I think we see the President has an ongoing Nicotine issue, and that he has been evasive. With all due respects to the late Paul Newman, and his role in ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ what we have here is a ‘failure to communicate’ honestly.

If in every other interview you do every other month, you admit to ‘falling off the wagon,’ well, you never really got on it. You may think you kicked the habit, but it is more reminiscent of what my friend Joe Walsh of the Eagles told me at a baseball camp a few years ago: “I have only been drunk once. For thirty years, now.” Well, at least he could hit.

Nevertheless, the President Elect did indicate the White House was going to remain “smoke-free.” So if he needs to sneak a smoke, where does he go- for a secret walk along Pennsylvania Avenue? Try to find a locker room near a gym where he could sneak a smoke? I suppose Mr. Obama is learning what many Americans have over the years: that quitting is not easy.

Mr. Obama told Chris Matthews as much: “It is a struggle like everything else.  And I think that it is important to just keep in mind… I want to set a good example for all these young people here, and I want to make sure as President of the United States, everybody knows that I’m going to try to stay healthy.”

Over the summer, Obama’s doctor shared with reporters that the President-Elect has a history of “intermittent cigarette smoking, but he quit this practice on several occasions and is currently using Nicorette gum with success.”

Studies say Nicorette users do better at quitting. Maybe so, but I worked at a radio station with a guy that used to put a patch on his arm to stop smoking and I think that is as useful as telling a flea to stay off my dog’s tail by putting a collar around his neck.

Last year, Fox News TV Host John Gibson called Obama’s smoking his “dirty little secret.” I guess that is the best they could come up with to dish out dirt on the prospective president. Still, it was never really a secret Mr. Obama actually hid.  Too bad for the Fox Fanatics, but this is an issue that is hardly going to bury Mr. Obama. Still, I expect the media and the press and cancer groups are going to jump all over this issue and never let it go. It is going to become the epicenter of a national debate on smoking.

The smoking issue had already been known to citizens of Illinois, where the President-Elect has served as a United States Senator. Michele Obama even discussed ‘the bad habit’ on 60 Minutes. Our future first lady said that she agreed to help her husband run for president on one condition: that he finally quit smoking, for good. Of the smoking habit, Mrs. Obama was pretty clear: “I hate it.”
In fact, as early as 2004 during his Senate campaign, Obama had told the Chicago Sun-Times his smoking is “an ongoing battle.” His wife told reporters then that he smokes “about three Marlboros a day.”  I know smokers who wish they could only smoke three packs a day.

Today, the President Elect offers this advice to smokers: “If you want to quit, then eliminate certain key connections – that first cigarette in the morning, or after a meal, or with a drink,” Obama said last month.

Anti-smoking advocates are counting on Obama as a role model for others trying to kick the habit, showing them that while it’s hard, all things are indeed possible in America. Said Matthew Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “Obama has shown a firm commitment to beat this addiction even though no one could have tried under more stressful circumstances,” Myers says. “It takes courage to admit failure, but even more courage to pledge to succeed.” But wait, there is another issue.

What if Obama does stay faithful to an occasional Marlboro? Does Obama smoking periodically make it cool, an abuse excuse for nicotine lovers? Or does he become the poster boy for the 2008 version of ‘Just Say No?’  Do the Mothers Against Midnite Smokers start national chapters? I don’t know. I do know we all have smoking stories.
I am a male Michele. I hate nicotine. I have been trying to get my partner to stop smoking cigarettes for about seven years. Every time we start to go into a deep kiss, I think I am inhaling stale cigarettes from a garbage can. It inhibits passion.

Every year in November the American Cancer Society conducts a ‘Great American Smokeout,’ urging smokers to commit to quit. Last month my partner John promised to show. Conveniently, he found a way not to go. They even offer follow up classes. It looks to me like Barack could pair up with my partner. They each have a recurring issue when it comes to smoking. Promises, promises.

This is not an issue I win with as a first amendment lawyer, arguing for free choice, individual responsibility, and the right to mark your life by each and every choice you make everyday. It is an argument I make because the toxic effects of smoking resonate to innocent bystanders, environmental concerns, and medical costs which influence all of us. Since the Brokaw interview, more and more people are sure to write about smoking, and I suspect it is going to generate a new national debate. Even the Associated Press touched down on this issue in a feature article this weekend, which is sure to be picked up by hundreds of papers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.  Cigarette smoking causes an estimated 438,000 deaths each year, including thousands from secondhand smoke exposure.  I don’t want to be one of them, and I don’t want my partner or my President to be one either.

I remember what my surgeon told me the day before he operated on me, after I had been diagnosed with stomach cancer at the age of 50: “If I knew I was going to get cancer this young, I may have drank and smoked a lot more,” I said. “You are looking at this the wrong way,” he replied, “You may live through this because you did not.” And here I am, ten years later.

The National Institute of Health has noted that there is a statistical prevalence of smoking excessively in African American populations as well. If Barack Obama sends a message that the habit is unhealthy, and it reaches elementary schools and cities, then there is a chance that could influence behavior for decades.

For whatever the cause, gays and lesbians also smoke at a staggeringly higher rate than most American men and women. Younger gays are even worse. They light up younger and continue longer and kill themselves sooner.

At the very least, I fully expect to see Michele Obama in a television ad, asking kids to stop smoking cigarettes. Not sure yet if Nancy Reagan will be up to the task to join with her.

As a member of the Board of Directors of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, I do realize this whole issue of smoking does not bode well for our issue. If the President is cornered into a flip-top box where he can’t smoke cigarettes, he is going to have a hard time saying good things about pot. I just do not foresee Barack speaking out against Marlboro one day and asking for decrim for Purple Haze the next.

Well, I will at least make him this deal. If he agrees to stop the raids on dispensaries in California, I will cut him a break and let him indulge his three Marlboros a day. But if he has his nicotine lapses without going to jail, can I ask that the 750,000 plus Americans who get arrested for simple possession of pot each year be cut the same break? We can promise to get back on the wagon, too!
Anyway, I do hope the message of a more nicotine free America will start with our new President. In fact, I hope it will reach my bedroom.

NORM KENT is a Fort Lauderdale attorney who can be reached at Norm@normkent.com





Norm Kent, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of NORML.