The Boston Phoenix
April 27 - May 4, 2000

[Out There]

That's smokin'

Are cigarettes still bad for you if you don't pay for them?

by Kris Frieswick

I don't smoke. I am not a smoker. I do not like it when other people smoke near me while I am eating. I think it's a filthy habit. I abhor the tobacco empires and their lying, nicotine-dosing ways. So why is it that when I get a martini in my hand, I am utterly powerless to resist the temptation of a nice smoky treat?

I am not in any way condoning my behavior, nor am I encouraging it. But there it is: if there's anything on the planet that tastes better with a glass of Oban single malt than a freshly lit cigarette, I wish someone would tell me what it is.

I don't touch cigarettes but twice a month, max, and only when socializing. The rest of the time, they never cross my mind. Recent research indicates that about 20 percent of the people you see smoking in a bar on any given Saturday night are just like me. Chippers, we're called, according to the National Cancer Institute. Chipper is a word originally used to describe a recreational heroin user who never develops a full-blown habit. Note the derogatory nature of the term "chipper": addicts hate it when someone else can enjoy, but not become addicted to, the very substance that enslaves them.

Of course, there's no such intra-vice derision between addicted smokers and chippers. Smokers welcome us into the fold like the prodigal children we are -- hoping against hope that we might actually convert to the dark, fully addicted side. But when we chippers do successfully resist the clutches of nicotine addiction, the smokers don't seem to care. They're just glad we're not glaring at them, telling them to put their butts out. We never will. You see, we need the smokers.

The dance between the chipper and demon tobacco is a slow and sultry one. It usually begins with plans to meet a friend for drinks. The chipper suggests a bar. Already, without even realizing it, the chipper has made a crucial decision. Thanks to some communistic regulations forced upon local restaurant owners recently, many bars in Boston are completely smoke free -- which I am thankful for when I'm eating, and pissed about when I'm drinking. In the deepest reaches of her subconscious, the chipper keeps a list of which bars in Boston will allow her to indulge her guilty pleasure and which contain bartenders who will look at her askance should she choose to light up. Chippers hate to be looked at askance.

When the meeting night arrives, the chipper isn't consciously thinking about smoking. All she's interested in is a couple of drinks and good conversation with a friend. The first drink is savored slowly, and lively conversation and gaiety ensue. Then it happens. A mysterious chemical reaction occurs deep in the pleasure center of the chipper's brain, whereby the metabolized alcohol mixes with an as-yet-undiscovered hormone dedicated to the enjoyment of smoky things. (In non-chippers, this creates a strange desire for Slim Jims or barbecue potato chips.)

The next step in the process is to negotiate with the drinking partner. If said drinking partner is a smoker, or another chipper, the two will immediately begin to smoke, or scrounge together enough quarters for the cigarette machine, or simply select a brand and decide who will go out to the 7-Eleven next door. However, if the drinking partner is opposed to smoking in all its forms, the subject of smoking is immediately shelved, usually by the chipper, who says something like, "Oh, it's okay. I only smoke when I drink. It's a filthy habit. You're probably right. I should just forget it."

About half an hour later, after the second round of drinks arrives, the "smoky" hormone has reached critical levels in the chipper's brain, and the chipper then excuses herself. This is where the real dance begins.

Slowly, the chipper scans the bar in an attempt to identify likely sources of cigarettes. If single, the chipper will also take into account the attractiveness variable, since a request to bum a cigarette will usually lead to nuanced chitchat. At some point, however, the "any port in a storm" policy goes into effect. Either way, the target is selected and the approach made. "Excuse me," the chipper says to her target with her best "I'm a fellow smoker" smile. "Can I bother you for a cigarette?" This chipper has never been refused such a request, and I don't know of any that have. (The double-chipper -- i.e., two-cigarette -- approach is much trickier, and I don't have room this week to dissect this delicate maneuver in the detail that it deserves.)

As a courtesy, the chipper will generally observe the remaining smokes in the donor's pack to establish how many more times she may bum before the smoker begins to get antsy. The addict's needs are generally so much greater than the chipper's that it is incumbent upon the chipper to decline when supplies dwindle. Even then, many a smoker will offer you the last cigarette. Say what you will about them, but smokers are by and large a genial, non-judgmental species that seeks only to be left alone. Their recent, virulent persecution by the nation's health nazis makes me fear for the long-term viability of our society.

But the health of our society, and me, is an equally grave concern, and it's the main reason I am constantly promising myself that I will not chip again. I know it's not good for me. I commute by bike 24 miles each day, and that ride is not a good time after a chipper night. Although no formal research has been done on the long-term effects of chipper smoking, some studies indicate that it may be about as hazardous as regular exposure to secondhand smoke, which can be very bad indeed. And in a slightly different vein, a study two years ago by a Harvard professor showed that social smoking is closely linked with binge drinking, marijuana use, and sexual promiscuity on college campuses. But then, what isn't?

And so, my fight against chipperhood continues. Recently, after vowing that I would never chip again, I was out on a date with a fellow chipper when the smoky hormone kicked in and we bought a pack. Several hours and half a pack later, I saw the familiar look cross his face. "We shouldn't have done that," he said with a guilt generally reserved for extramarital sex.

"No, we shouldn't, but we did," I said. "And obsessing about it is probably more hazardous to our health than doing it again." Whereupon he opened up the pack, flicked open his Zippo, and lit me up another. So, my friends, here's to all things in moderation, including moderation.

Kris Frieswick can be reached at

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