I quit

Peak indifference, big tobacco, disinformation and death

Cory Doctorow


A vintage Chesterfield cigarettes ad, featuring Ronald Reagan, identified as star of “Voice of the Turtle” and thus likely from 1947

I smoked from the age of 13 to the age of 33. I loved smoking. I loved having something to do with my hands. I loved making friends by cadging — or sharing — cigarettes. I loved learning Zippo tricks, finding beautiful old cigarette cases at flea markets, learning to roll a cigarette, then learning how to do it one-handed. I loved the excuse to take breaks from my work.

But I hated smoking. I knew it would kill me. I watched it kill people I loved. They died hard. Gradually, the quixotic pride I felt in the lengths we smokers went to in order to engage in our increasingly disfavored habit turned to horror.

For example, the story of science fiction legend Judith Merril’s brain surgery. Judy was a mentor to me and so many other writers in Toronto, and after her surgery, Lorna Toolis, head librarian at the Merril Collection (the sf reference library she founded) came to visit her, only to find her hospital bed empty. Lorna feared the worst — Judy had died on the table, say — but after a moment’s reflection, Lorna decided to check the hospital’s outdoor smoking area, where she discovered Judy in a wheelchair, head swathed in bandages, hours out of major surgery, puffing away at a cigarette.

At the time, I experienced this story with a thrill of addict’s pride: there was a true virtuoso and devotee of the evil weed. Later, the story took on a different cast: the indomitable, brilliant, ceaseless and restless Judith Merril was prisoner to an urge manufactured and spread by a remorseless and murdering corporate cartel.

When I decided to quit, I found a hypnotherapist —Dr Alan Banack, a former emergency room MD and psychologist who went into practice doing clinical hypnosis — and visited him for three or four sessions. The hypnosis was great, like really fine, guided meditation, deeply relaxing and reinvigorating.

Importantly, it helped me overcome my fear that if I quit smoking, I wouldn’t be able to write anymore, since I’d always done the two activities together (today I tell writing students not to smoke at all, but if they must, not to smoke while writing, lest they prolong their addiction to protect their artistic production).