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The Romance of a Good Smoke

WebMD Feature

Feb. 19, 2001 -- Back when Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall attracted moviegoers in hordes to To Have and Have Not, Key Largo, Dark Passage, and other flicks, part of the appeal was Bogie's suave lighting of his-and-her cigarettes. Sexy, sexy, sexy.

Of course, that was before the U.S. Surgeon General's warning about the health risks of cigarettes, and these days we know better. Yet knowing and doing can be two different things: Plenty of real-life couples still mimic the movies, smoking not just after sex but while watching TV, talking about the family budget, drinking coffee, or discussing problems. Need to stall when your partner asks why the checkbook balance is so anemic? Take a drag before you answer. Waiting on your always-late beloved? Temper your anger with a smoke.

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Trouble can brew, however, when one or both spouses decide it's time to give up cigarettes. Whether they enroll in smoking cessation classes or try self-help measures, they probably aren't taking into account the role smoking plays in their relationship and the needs it serves. And so, their chances of success are dimmed.

That's the view of Arizona researchers who say smoking can serve many functions in a relationship, and that couples who are aware of that -- and learn substitute behaviors or develop substitute rituals for smoking -- may stand a better chance of becoming long-term quitters.

"Smoking doesn't happen in a vacuum," says Michael J. Rohrbaugh, PhD, professor of psychology and family studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "It becomes part of the relationship pattern and keeps it going."

Rohrbaugh and five colleagues are studying the idea that smoking is intertwined within an intimate relationship, their work funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Drug Abuse. So far, 13 couples, ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s, are enrolled in the study. The goal over the next two years of the three-year study is to enroll a total of about 50 couples, and to determine if taking the role of smoking into account will help make them long-term nonsmokers. To qualify for the study, the couple must include at least one partner who smokes at least a half pack a day despite having a heart or lung condition.

The stories Rohrbaugh's team has heard so far from couples (whose names have been changed here) in the university-funded pilot study bear out their hunches.

There's Mary, a long-term smoker, who says she heads to the back porch, cigarettes in hand, when she wants to be alone. Her solo smoking is a clear signal to her partner that she needs her space.

There's Joe and Evelyn, who light up every morning, sitting in the garage on their favorite lawn chairs. It's their time to talk, Evelyn says, adding, "If we didn't smoke in the garage, I doubt we'd talk much -- and he wouldn't even miss me."

And there's Ann, who says she talks better when she has a cigarette in her hand. She always smokes when she and her husband, Harry, argue. When Rohrbaugh's team observed this couple in the lab, using one-way mirrors, the couple spoke more softly to each other, and more intimately, when they were smoking.

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