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.
Smoking in America is down -- but not out. Today, 20% of U.S. adults are smokers, compared to 45% in 1965, when smoking was at its peak. But even at the current level of tobacco use, an estimated 440,000 Americans per year lose their lives to lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, or other smoking-related illnesses. On average, smokers die 14 years before nonsmokers, and half of all smokers who don't quit are killed by their habit.
People start smoking for many reasons. Many continue to puff away...
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
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.