Start Smoking

I'm hanging out with a couple of friends on their apartment balcony when one pal hands me a cigarette.

Now, this may not seem like a big deal to some, especially for seasoned puffers, but I smoke only three or four cigarettes a month.

I take the cigarette (which may be a Marlboro or an American Spirit; it's not as though I would know the difference) in between my thumb and index finger. I check, on the sly, to see which end I'm supposed to place between my lips. My friends, consumed with talking about the neighbor's annoying yip-yip dog, don't seem to notice.

Eventually, I inhale deeply and hold the smoke in my lungs for a second too long. I cough a little. One chain-smoking buddy glances my way with an inquisitive expression. It's obvious that I look like a complete fool.

But I don't care. I didn't start smoking the equivalent of two packs per year (that's right, per year — three or four cigarettes a month) to be cool or to fit in. I gave up on those things a long time ago.

I did it because — get this — it's good for me. I don't know how, but it is. Somehow, it helps with my internal balance. I do realize that there are so-called healthier alternatives, like listening to music and exercise. But I've done all that stuff my entire life, so, to me, it's no biggie to choke down a cancer stick here and there.

Now, you may be asking, "What's the point?" of smoking only a few cigs a month, especially considering that I started just a few years ago, in my late 20s. Which I would respond with, "Why the heck not?" I've never had a smoking habit and I don't ever crave nicotine. Because the amount is so low, that's a sure sign that it won't become an addiction. So no worries, right?

And by the way, this is not one of those I-only-smoke-when-I-drink indulgences. Plus, there's this bonus: My here-and-there smoking custom is basically free, since I never buy my own cigarettes. The one time I did, I felt so guilty asking the Circle K clerk for a pack of smokes that I enjoyed only two of them, leaving the remainder to rot in my nightstand drawer.

To try to prove my point that for me, smoking is, indeed, a swell thing, I spoke with Robyn McKay, a staff counselor at Arizona State University with a doctorate in counseling psychology.

She acknowledges that nicotine's biochemicals have been linked with short-term mood improvements. "Many people who smoke, even occasionally, pick up a cigarette when they feel stressed anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed. Their goal? To chill out," she says.

Well, great! There's the proof that this good-to-be-bad habit works wonders, right? Not so fast, McKay says. And then I realize that she probably doesn't "get" me.

"There are other reasons that people like you, Steve, smoke every once in a while. Don't underestimate the power of wanting to belong. Just because you're not in high school any longer doesn't mean that you don't want to fit in. If you decide to hang with your buddies while they smoke, you don't have to light up, too."

"In any case," she concludes, "I can't endorse the idea that it's 'good to be bad.' Meaning, I would never recommend smoking for stress reduction — or for any other reason, for that matter."

That's cool. I guess I get all of that. However, unless I start hacking up phlegm onto my pillowcase from smoker's cough or getting withdrawal headaches, I don't see myself stopping this relatively new habit any time soon.

If anything, I say better late than never.