Is there a solution?
I was back home after three days at the Mayo Clinic, and I sat with my wife, having decided on an evening of television. To this end we looked in the morning paper and saw the listing for the story of Bette Davis, coming on at 9 p.m. This was appealing, inasmuch as when I was about 15, I fancied my future as Mr. Bette Davis -- though that was a contingent romance, if Betty Hutton would not have me. And it was especially embittering given that Bette married just about everybody else. So I wound up with the mother of the author of Thank You for Smoking.
In any case, we were seated, and after a flurry of investigations to discover on what TV channel Turner Classic Movies appears in New York (answer: 82) we were staring at her. That lovely head, lips all but closed, smoke filtering out of her mouth, and when the smoke was finally gone, she began to speak in her special way, contemptuous of everybody and everything. What followed (for as long as we stayed with her) were shots dating back to 1930. She was always with a cigarette in her hand, calling to mind the recent movie about Edward R. Murrow, which is one long shot of smoke-filled rooms in which characters occasionally say things -- grim things, mostly -- in between puffs on cigarettes.
The Mayo Clinic is in what I think of as Middle America, though the term has to be used with care. It's easiest to visualize: Get yourself to Minneapolis and then head south for 90 miles, whereafter ... Rochester. There are 100,000 people there; a third of them work for IBM and a third for Mayo. Most people have a story about that remarkable place, myself included. Mine I got from the late David Niven. He was suffering from an odd affliction that seized his voice from time to time. Living in France and Switzerland, he had consulted with a broad band of specialists, but none had come up with a diagnosis. My wife said to him, Why don't you go to Mayo's? He did, and in two days they told him he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. That's what it was, and he died of it 18 months later.
I was there in search of a diagnosis for my shortness of breath, and a dozen tests and examinations confirmed that the problem is emphysema and, oh yes, the cause of it was smoking. How long had I smoked? One deals with Mayo as with a confessional, zero temporizing. I smoked cigarettes for 10 years, age 15 to 25. And then cigars, off and on, but steadily for about 10 years, beginning about age 68.
There weren't many ways of looking at those X-rays and charts and CT scans. There it is, and you find you are taking in about one-third the air you would be taking in if you had never smoked. One must imagine that to be told you have Lou Gehrig's disease permits a little more human drama than to be told you have emphysema. The Mayo Clinic is not a missionary enterprise, turning out patients with recommitments to holier lives. But let's face it, when six hours later you find yourself relaxed at home watching a close-up of Bette Davis inhaling deeply and even licentiously, it's normal to ask, why is this going on?
The statistics are plain. Every day, approximately 4,500 Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 smoke for the first time. Half of them will smoke regularly from that point forward, which comes down to 800,000 new habitual smokers each year.
Is there nothing to be done? The easiest answer to that question is presumably the correct answer: Nothing. There is the blissful escapist factor: Not every smoker contracts emphysema or lung cancer. And there is the tireless diversionary exercise, drawing attention to Aunt Judie, who just died of lung cancer, had suffered from emphysema, and never had a cigarette in her life. Yes, and such data as these would not be withheld from you at the Mayo Clinic. The Mayo people aren't there to account for scientific anomalies. But a certain strength is imparted to people who expose themselves to the even-temperedness one finds there, the quiet confidence in the correctness of scientific lucidity, the corporate anxiety to show a resourceful concern for human health.
If you found yourself with emphysema, and you woke up emperor of the whole world, with absolute power in all matters of production and consumption, what would you do?
That's simple, of course. Forbid smoking to everyone you care about.
William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of books such as Miles Gone By and Elvis in the Morning, and the editor of National Review's Treasury of Classic Children's Literature.