In 'Nicotine,' A Longtime Smoker Confronts His Old Habit

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Writer Gregor Hens doesn't smoke anymore, but he used to — a lot. And as he explains in his memoir, Nicotine, he still thinks about it every day.

He writes, "Every form of cigarette ad gives me a pang of longing, every scrunched-up, carelessly thrown away cigarette packet at a bus stop, every trod-on cigarette butt, every beautiful woman holding a cigarette between her fingers or just looking like she could be holding one."

Hens tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that he started writing the book after he quit smoking as a way to deal with withdrawal. He says, "I decided there would be two possible ways of doing it: Either to completely ignore my cigarettes and everything about cigarettes, or to confront it head-on. So I did, and basically chronicled my struggle."


Interview Highlights

On one of his earliest memories of smoking

I was very young. I have two older brothers. ... We went out at night to light fireworks for New Year's Eve. It's a German tradition. We went out there, it was a cold night, and there was only one lighter. And my brothers were fighting over this lighter and my mother gave me a cigarette to light the rockets with, to hold the glowing cigarette to the fuse and then the rocket will go off. And of course, you do this a couple of times and then the cigarette starts going out. So my mother said, "Well, you have to take a drag ... to keep it going." And I did and I had a coughing fit. The adults thought it was really funny. And that was my first taste.

And then after a while I looked forward to the cigarette more than to the fireworks. So when I was 7, 8, 9 years old, I was: "Oh, it's New Year's Eve. I'm gonna get another cigarette."

On the last time he smoked before he quit

The last cigarette I didn't really notice as a last cigarette. I didn't celebrate it, I didn't reserve it. I was out having dinner with my wife and her friend, and it was a beautiful summer evening and we were sitting outside in front of an Italian restaurant talking, drinking wine. And this friend of my wife's and I shared a pack of cigarettes, and then it was over.

And I walked back home with my wife and she said, "Oh, I wish I could have been part of that. I would have loved to share that pack with you." And she had been a heavy smoker herself earlier, and I didn't want that responsibility; I didn't want her to feel like she should be part of this sort of orgy of smoke. And so I decided, OK, you know what, this is it. I'm going to quit. I threw out all of the ash trays and lighters and cigarette packs and opened all the windows and that was it.

On seeing a hypnotist in order to keep from relapsing

I've relapsed many, many times and it's usually been in moments of crisis, of trauma. So if something terrible would happen to me, like a bicycle accident or a breakup of a relationship, the first thing I would do is, oh, OK, I'm feeling so bad I might as well have a cigarette. And so in order to prevent this from happening again, I thought I would have to sort of immunize myself against that. And so that's why I went to the hypnotist. And I told him, "I'm smoke-free. It's looking good, but I want you to tell me, to tell my inner self, that I'm not going to relapse in a situation like that." And he thought — I think he thought I was crazy. ... I haven't smoked since. It worked.

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