Summer in Maine always brings in interesting out-of-town guests. This year, it’s Jean-Paul.

He’s from France, which is another way of saying that he smokes.

After a good meal, or in anticipation of one, or sometimes when he needs a break between courses, he’s likely to sit back in a lawn chair on our patio and indulge himself in a few puffs from a Marlboro.

“You’re setting a bad example for the children,” Kaja, his girlfriend and my sister-in-law, says in French.

He looks wounded.

“But you take away all the pleasure,” he says.

As an ex-smoker who has strayed in the past, I might feel tempted to join Jean-Paul on the patio and indulge a little myself, but I know that there is no pleasure in it for me. Almost immediately my thoughts would go to words like addiction, heart disease, cancer, emphysema and premature death.

It strikes me that three decades of public health and consumer education efforts have had a huge effect on America. We may not have eradicated smoking, but we have successfully taken all the fun out of it.

When I see marginalized smokers shivering outside a bar on a winter night, office workers grabbing some shelter under a building overhang in the rain or huddled around a Dumpster on a hot summer day, I don’t think I’m seeing people who are enjoying life to the fullest.

There is a grim purpose to their smoking, like people taking their medicine. It seems as though the only cigarette you can enjoy in this country is the one you have when you are wearing a blindfold, waiting for the firing squad to get its orders.

What we know about smoking even robs past smokers of their pleasure.

I started smoking in junior high school, despite having parents who were pioneer nonsmokers during an era when it was considered the height of rudeness to ask your guests not to light up in your living room.

But I was influenced more by the old movies that were constantly rerun on TV in those days and I practiced in front of a mirror talking, like Humph-rey Bogart, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth. I learned to avoid crying when the smoke curled into my eyes, which would have spoiled the tough-guy effect.

Now, a former smoker for much longer than I ever smoked, I watch the AMC drama “Mad Men.”

The characters smoke (and drink) constantly, but I have a completely different reaction to them than I did to the movies I watched as a kid.

When Don and Betty Draper light up I don’t think, “How glamorous.” I think, “Don’t they know how sick they are going to get?” I get nauseated just looking at them.

Jean-Paul has been absent from class during our national seminar on the dangers of smoking, so he doesn’t have the same baggage we carry.

He was very excited the other night by an official-looking sign outside Portland High School that declared the area “Tobacco Free,” which he took to mean, “Free Tobacco.”

And it’s not just cigarettes that he is able to enjoy more than we do.

A bite of local goat cheese puts him in mind of “walking in a resinous forest.”

Chocolate cake, if I can trust the translation, is like “baby Jesus in shorts of velvet.”

Our American health food is less interesting. A bowl of oatmeal is dismissed with the comment, “It’s exciting for the horses.”

Every meal should be an experience – and don’t get him started about the wine.

So what should we make of the report that cigarette sales in Maine have increased 5 percent so far this year? According to a story in the Bangor Daily News, it’s the first time that anyone at Maine Revenue Services can remember selling more tax stamps one year than the year before. That coincides with a 2010 study that found the teen smoking rate on the rise, up to 18 percent from 14 percent, after years of steady decline.

Are Maine people taking a more European approach to life and enjoying the pleasures of the senses without any concern for their consequences? I doubt it.

We can’t escape knowing the consequences.

When more of us are grabbing a cigarette, it probably means that more people are looking at a flat economy and a high unemployment rate without much hope that things are going to get better in the future.

It’s not about pleasure. In our culture of consequences, cheese means cholesterol, cake is calories and lighting up is a profoundly pessimistic act.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: [email protected]