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Can Obama Quit Smoking?

Posted Aug 26 2008 11:21pm


Does nicotine addiction matter in a president?

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, and Clinton all enjoyed their occasional cigarettes and cigars. Laura Bush as been accused of bumming a cigarette or two since entering the Oval Office.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama smokes, too, but I could not find a picture of him actually doing it--and neither can anybody else, it seems. By all accounts, Barack Obama continues to struggle mightily in his current quitting attempt, which began in the form of a campaign promise to his wife. Sources say he’s getting by—barely--with the “strenuous” use of nicotine chewing gum.

Is there any way for Obama to connect with FDR and his rakish cigarette holder? Or is a president who smokes simply out of step with a nation seemingly bent on emptying all workspaces and gathering places of tobacco smoke? In a smoke-free nation, will the next president be forced to huddle on the rear portico of the White House, with the serving staff, and fieldstrip the odd Marb?

The fact that Obama may have messed with a little weed, a little blow, back in the day, seems, at long last, to be a non-starter as a wedge issue of any consequence. If Newt Gingrich smoked pot in college, everybody smoked pot in college. Even before Obama had officially entered the race last year, Michael Currie Schaffer of the Dallas Morning News ventured to guess that “youthful coke-dabblers probably outnumber adult smokers among Mr. Obama’s fellow 1980s, Harvard law students.”

On the other hand, as Maureen Dowd cooed in the New York Times, the smoking habit made Obama “intriguingly imperfect.” Ah, that touch of the rogue. Simply irresistible. Clearly, this is meant to separate Obama as a candidate from that oh-so-perfect and impeccably smoke-free Hilary Clinton, who in point of fact was personally responsible for the first official no-smoking regulations in the White House.

Nonetheless, as Schaffer points out, nowadays smoking is “actuarially foolish and hopelessly out of fashion,” and as such, can do Obama no good, even as a humanizing gambit. Fox News called it “Obama’s dirty little secret.” The fact that Obama hasn’t officially overcome the habit means he cannot lean on any sort of triumph over adversity, any type of uplifting self-help story, as even George Bush was able to do with his former drinking.

Some anti-smoking advocates want Obama to come out of the closet and embrace his inner nicotine fiend in public. According to the New York Times, Smoking cessation experts say they hope Mr. Obama’s example of using a nicotine gum will encourage smokers to try a nicotine replacement product to help them quit.” But for ABC News, as correspondent Jake Tapper put it, the big question is: “Will Nicorette be enough to get him through Iowa and New Hampshire? Or will he inhale?”

One of the problems with nicotine gums and lozenges, as a British health report recently made clear, is that nicotine replacement is not widely used, because it is expensive--and because it is subject to greater regulation than cigarettes themselves. Warning labels on a pack of Nicorette far exceed the side effects listed on a pack of Camels.

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