Peter Gzowski, who died yesterday, was a man of many accomplishments, both professional (his writing and editing, his superb radio years) and extraprofessional (his successful literacy campaign). His life and achievements are remembered in detail elsewhere in these pages today; but let us focus here on a message he worked to get across late in his life, a message tied to the manner of his death.
Mr. Gzowski smoked for half a century. At times he smoked three large packs a day. In his essay How to Stop Smoking in Fifty Years or Less, written for the recently published book Addicted: Notes from the Belly of the Beast, he wrote wryly but forcefully about the building blocks of an addiction to cigarettes. On taking it up: "It was what you did, as much a part of approaching manhood as our cracking voices and the hair that was sprouting in all the predictable places." On living with it: When people asked him why he wouldn't kick the habit, "I could sometimes do no better than 'I smoke because I smoke.' . . . [I] was simply a lot easier to light up than to forbear."
Mr. Gzowski sought professional help to stop smoking, which he did in 2000. It was not enough to save him from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, the slow death of the lungs brought on by the emphysema that smoking had given him. He learned to breathe with oxygen, and spoke with passion of the psychology of the addiction. "If anyone asked, and they did, all the time, I'd say I hated my habit. It's hard to duck the fact that I probably hated myself for being such a slave to it."
His honesty on this subject has weight beyond his life. Teenagers who take up smoking think they are immortal. They may delight in thumbing their noses at the earnest warnings that cigarettes can take years off their lives and lead to cancer and heart and lung disease. They think it cool to live dangerously. Many carry this philosophy through their adult life, kicking at friends and authorities they see as telling them how to live their lives. But just as the photographs on cigarette packs are graphic evidence that smoking is not cool, testimonials from people as eloquent and as familiar as Peter Gzowski about the consequences of smoking may encourage some smokers to quit who would otherwise find excuses to continue.