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Tony Newman

Tony Newman

Posted: December 9, 2008 03:34 PM

Obama's Smoking Drama


President-elect Obama's smoking habit is making news again. Tom Brokaw asked Obama if he was still smoking during his one hour interview on last Sunday's Meet the Press. Obama hemmed and hawed, but in the end admitted to falling off the wagon a few times.

Obama's relationship with smoking became a public issue when his wife Michelle made him promise to quit cigarettes if he ran for president. I have followed Obama's public struggle with cigarettes with great interest, as addiction is both a personal issue that I face every day (I am addicted to cigarettes) and a professional issue for the organization I work for, the Drug Policy Alliance.

Like Obama, I have also promised my wife numerous times that I will quit... for good. I quit cigarettes on birthdays, on my wedding day, Martin Luther King Day, and following the birth of my daughter. I sincerely hope that President-elect Obama will be successful if he continues to try to quit. But I also know that President Obama is human and, if he is like most cigarette addicts, he might end up relapsing and starting up again, perhaps more than once. I can't imagine the stress, pressure and thrill of being president but I can imagine how those emotions could trigger the urge to relax or process over a cigarette!

Making public or private promises to quit is a mixed bag. The public announcement and promise can be a helpful motivator when the urge to smoke arises. The flip side is having to apologize and feeling ashamed after starting up again. It is no fun having to explain to people, in person or on national television how you came to start up again once they "catch" you smoking again.

One thing that Mr. Obama and I can be thankful for is that our addiction is legal! Relapse is a common experience whether your addition is cigarettes, alcohol or illegal drugs. Thankfully, we don't arrest cigarette smokers who relapse. While it seems crazy to lock up someone who relapses over cigarettes, it makes no more sense to lock up a cocaine addict who relapses.

Some see failure in Obama's current smoking status. I see success. While Obama could be a regular smoker, going through a pack a day, it sounds like he is an occasional smoker and has one here, one there. That is not a setback, that is progress! Obama shows that it is not all or nothing, but that moderate use may be attainable for some smokers.

Mr. Obama's honesty about his past and current drug use is admirable. He has admitted to using marijuana and cocaine as a youth. It has been refreshing to see him admit it and not run from it or make excuses. Like Mr. Obama, tens of millions of Americans have also tried marijuana and they seem to be rewarding his honesty by not holding his past drug use against him. Mr. Obama's continued effort to quit cigarettes is exemplary of an honest struggle to change for the better, whether he is finally able to quit--or even if he is not.