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The Romance of a Good Smoke

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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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I smoked for more than 44 years and knew I needed to stop. I had smoking-induced asthma. My parents, both heavy smokers, died of smoking-related diseases. Secondhand smoke contributed mightily to my four children’s recurring upper respiratory ailments in their younger years. Yet I continued to smoke. Every winter I dealt with pleurisy attacks from breathing cold air. I had to lie flat on my back for days, the slightest movement sending knifelike pains through my chest. After I’d recovered,...

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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.

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