The Labor of Addiction: A Personal History of Smoking in the Workplace

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Gregory Wood in 1993

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”  —Mark Twain

By Gregory Wood, author of Clearing the Air: The Rise and Fall of Smoking in the Workplace

As I wrote about the histories of working-class smoking, tobacco control, and nicotine addiction in my book, Clearing the Air: The Rise and Fall of Smoking in the Workplace, I was often reminded of my own difficult past as a heavily addicted cigarette smoker. In fact, the project stemmed from two important sources: first, my discovery of unique documents that detailed the history of working-class smoking practices at Hammermill Paper Company in Erie, Pennsylvania, during 1915; and the insights gained from my own hellish experiences with nicotine addiction. For eleven years, throughout what was my twenties, I was a regular smoker who came to know very well the power of addiction and how tobacco use facilitated challenges to managers’ authority at work.

I began smoking as a new student in college in order to socialize with other individuals who happened to be smokers: in other words, I started using tobacco to fit in with a new peer group. My addiction to nicotine unfolded very quickly, occurring over a period of no more than a month in the fall semester of 1992. Sadly, I took to smoking very, very easily. By December 1992, toward the end of my first semester in college, I needed nearly a pack of cigarettes every day in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms.


As I worked on Clearing the Air, I found myself constantly recalling my own experiences—seeing in the sources the many ways in which my experiences had echoed those of other nicotine-addicted working-class men and women struggling to safeguard access to nicotine at work.


I remember vividly how difficult it was to manage my part-time jobs and my nicotine habit during my college years. As an addicted tobacco user, I needed regular infusions of nicotine in order to prevent what I discovered were acute withdrawal symptoms. In my experience, the painful feelings of withdrawal were very intense and immediate, which made the managing of my addiction a constant priority. Though required to remain at my posts in the locations where I worked, whether it was behind a cash register or unloading trucks at a major department store, I regularly absconded from these workplaces in order to smoke outside—whether it was an officially designated break time or not. As I worked on the research for Clearing the Air, I found myself constantly recalling my own experiences—seeing in the sources the many ways in which my experiences had echoed those of other nicotine-addicted working-class men and women struggling to safeguard access to nicotine at work.

At the large department store where I worked for much of my undergraduate years and into the start of graduate school, the other smokers with whom I worked and I must have driven our supervisors utterly crazy with the frequency and duration of our cigarette breaks. Three other smokers and myself—who were responsible for all of the stock that came into the store—were regularly absent from the shipping and receiving area where we were supposed to be working. The pull of our addictions, but also our desires to socialize and to do something other than work, drew us outdoors, where we could smoke our cigarettes in relative peace. No matter what the temperature was outside, “exiled smokers” such as ourselves would put up with the weather in order to satisfy our desires to smoke.

Those of us who worked in shipping and receiving (a group that consisted mostly of blue-collar men) often talked while we smoked, about anything and everything: the ebb and flow of our love interests, hobbies, goals, politics, sports, music, movies, etc., but also our feelings about our bosses and other coworkers. Many of our “associates” also smoked and thus intersected with our own little circle. While working on Clearing the Air, I often thought of my old supervisor, a hardworking nonsmoker named Ron, who with the patience of a saint grudgingly tolerated our regular rebellions against the discipline of department store work rules. He seemed to understand that our desires to smoke and talk were more pressing to us than the unloading of water heaters, air conditioners, furniture, lawn mowers, or men’s and women’s fashions.


Those of us who worked in shipping and receiving often talked while we smoked, about anything and everything: the ebb and flow of our love interests, hobbies, goals, politics, sports . . . but also our feelings about our bosses and other coworkers.


Over time, my smoking habit became less of a social activity, workplace rebellion, or a personal luxury and more of a very real burden. Increasing costs for packs of cigarettes during the 1990s and early 2000s cut more and more into my paychecks every week, and the high volume of cigarettes that I regularly consumed took an immense toll on my day-to-day health. By the time I was a doctoral student, I was struggling with a whole host of health problems that were the result of my unending nicotine habit: painful and frequent headaches that felt like ministrokes, frequent upper-respiratory infections, constant sore throats, chronic sinus infections, and significant weight loss, to name but a few of the health problems with which I dealt as a long-time smoker.

Attempts to quit, however, failed. Like many other smokers, I tried to quit cold turkey on several occasions, only to relapse a few hours later as a result of the pains that accompanied withdrawal. I ultimately needed a prescription medication—Zyban—to quit. I was twenty-nine years old, but I was finally a nonsmoker. It felt amazing to be free of my addiction: my weight stabilized, the headaches stopped, and my immune system recovered. In Clearing the Air, I talk about the unique power of this addiction and how it greatly shaped the history of labor in the twentieth century. History is very much where tobacco smoke belongs—not in our airspace or our lungs.

Gregory Wood is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Frostburg State University. He is the author of  Clearing the Air: The Rise and Fall of Smoking in the Workplace. Follow him on Twitter @GregWoodFSU.

80140100940330L.jpgClearing the Air: The Rise and Fall of Smoking in the Workplace
By Gregory Wood
$45.00 hardcover

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The Labor of Addiction: A Personal History of Smoking in the Workplace