Up in the Hollow: Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette!

Mark Twain famously said that it was so easy to quit smoking, he had done it a hundred times.

I only quit once, back in 1978. I had smoked maniacally for over 20 years. Recently I added it all up: I had puffed away at a least two packs every day. That was a minimum of 40 cigarettes a day, 280 a week, 14,560 a year, for a grand total over two decades of approximately 291,200 coffin nails smoked by yours truly. (I say “approximately” because I was counting on my fingers.)

Back when I finally kicked the evil weed, a carton of Lucky Strikes cost less than $3. The other day someone told me that a pack of cigarettes costs about $14 in New York City these days. If I had been smoking at those prices, what I spent on nicotine could have endowed a small university or bailed out Greece. That would have run me $28 a day, which comes to almost $225,000 if one sustains two packs a day for 20 years. Crazy, right? Of course.

But almost all of us know somebody crazy who is working on the new world record for money spent on inhaling burnt carcinogens. And there are high school kids like we all were who are daily caving in to the peer pressure and pretending that lighting up is cool, sophisticated and mature. (By the way, The New York Times reports that “low-income” smokers are spending 25 percent of their wages on cigarettes. Go figure.)

At this point I could tell you about the money I spent on booze, but that would be much too long of a story, and I’m not sure that you would believe me anyway.

Needless to say, I survived all of that self-destructive addiction and I am here to tell the cautionary tale. Like they say, there is no more annoying scold than the reformed sinner, the voice of experience. Do as I say, and not as I did.

My tobacco farming family never discussed the downside of the beautiful plant. It was the cash crop that was vital to the economy of Virginia and North Carolina, and besides, the cigarette industry sang its benefits in glamorous and seductive advertising.

Now we know that beyond the money wasted there are other very serious consequences to the dirty little habit. According to the American Lung Association, “cigarette smoking is the number one cause of preventable disease and death worldwide. Smoking-related diseases claim over 393,000 American lives every year. Smoking cost the United States over $193 billion in 2004, including $97 billion in lost productivity and $96 billion in direct health care expenditures, or an average of $4,260 per adult smoker.”

And I wonder – has anybody ever stopped doing anything because of a statistic? I had a good buddy who, dying of lung cancer, lit up as he was about to enter an iron lung.

But wait, why I am writing about nicotine? I’m usually bashing our potential neighbor Family Dollar. Well, here is how that august corporation feels about this subject and about their customers: According to Forbes Magazine, “dollar stores” boomed during the recession, for obvious reasons, but are now feeling pressure from big dog Walmart, which is getting into the “neighborhood market” business. So Family Dollar has gone big time into cigarette sales, which create “repeat addictive customers.”

Forbes says that “Family Dollar’s average shopper is a female head of household in her mid-40s who earns less than $40,000 a year.” Bryn Wilburn, public relations manager for Family Dollar, told Forbes, “We know our customer over-indexes in tobacco use. Our goal is to be relevant to our customer and meet her needs every day . . . Our target customer is the one that previously has to purchase their products elsewhere.”

I guess you could say that I once “over-indexed” on booze and smokes. I used to joke that “I spent 90 percent of my money on whiskey and women . . . and the rest I just wasted.” But it wasn’t a joke. In the end, there was nothing funny about it. I got off that train the day before I died.

There are some folks who say that Family Dollar will provide “daily necessities” that aren’t currently available in the county, but that just isn’t so. Those necessities have always been here, since before there were paved roads and automobiles. There are those who say it will provide a few minimum-wage jobs, but that doesn’t take into account the better jobs that will be destroyed.

There are those who say that a little competition is a healthy thing, and I generally agree with that. But coming into a tight-knit community with the purpose of putting long-time local stores out of business isn’t competition, it’s monopoly. Family Dollar buys in bulk from Asian sweatshops and always prices slightly lower than the local “mom and pops” can reasonably do. It doesn’t take a lot of vision or imagination to see where all this goes.

There are some folks too who might call all of this resistance “snobbery.” As in, “Well, Chumley old boy, there goes the neighborhood. Look here, people of below median-income appearing everywhere around the club!” We’ve had some of that recently on another issue. But this ain’t that.

We are here, all kinds of folks, in a unique and endangered traditional rural community. The attraction of Rappahannock isn’t just its natural beauty, but its independent way of life. And as the world around us changes, what we represent becomes more attractive. Friends and neighbors, it is time to hold the line, in any legal way possible.