Clearing the Smoke in AA

By Harry Healy 09/03/14

Even during AA’s pioneering days, cigarette smoking was the source of internal controversy. Is there any room for cigs in the 12 steps?


In the Saturday Evening Post article on Alcoholics Anonymous that dragged the organization out into American culture, a piece of writing so critical to the growth of the movement it has achieved near-mythic status, author Jack Alexander employs a mere 282 words before he makes a reference to smoking. Some men are in the psych ward of a hospital, they’re giving a drunk the AA pitch, and they’re smoking. Of course they’re smoking. 

Even during AA’s pioneering days, where the Alexander article clearly belongs, cigarette smoking was the source of internal controversy. In the chapter of the Big Book titled, “The Family Afterward” (presumably) Bill Wilson relates the tale of an early member who was sober for a time, but going wild with his coffee chugging and feverish smoking. His wife disapproved (wives generally disapprove of smoking, particularly if that wife has children with said smoker). The smoker, his last couple of addictions under siege, became extremely agitated with the missus and went out and got blasted. Inexcusable. No AA member has an acceptable justification for getting drunk (although that doesn’t mean he won’t, or let’s be honest, that I won’t) and the anecdote does culminate with that admonition. “Our friend was wrong. Dead wrong,” Wilson intones, but goes on to say that yes, overuse of tobacco may be harmful, but there are worse things.

A quaint preconception about AA meetings centers on middle-aged men wearing raincoats, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. This wasn’t altogether inaccurate at one time, and the image, and the reality it used to reflect, were drawn from the movies, particularly a pair of searing dramas, The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses. 

Directed by Hollywood legend Billy Wilder, the former title earned four Academy Awards including Best Picture for its portrayal of an alcoholic writer played by Ray Milland. The character wears a classic men’s raincoat that gains a deepening symbolic significance as the story unfolds, and he’s rarely without a cigarette. In a sight gag that runs throughout the movie, he keeps trying to light his smokes the wrong way around, including the one he drops into a glass of rye in the film’s final signature shot. He’s resolved to dry out, but it’s unclear whether the cigarette in the drink means he’s giving up the butts, too. 

Milland never makes it to an AA meeting, but Charles Jackson, who wrote the book the movie was based on, modeled the character on himself. Jackson had a long and slippery history in early AA, with long bouts of sobriety. His life ended with an overdose of barbiturates.

AA (and chain-smoking) receives prominent play in Days of Wine and Roses. Jack Lemmon, as the main character, battles his booze devils with the aid of a tough but understanding sponsor played by Jack Klugman. In maybe the first mainstream movie to depict an AA meeting, you’ll note the raincoats and a stratus cloud of cigarette smoke layered over the room. If a meeting like that still existed, I’d sure like to find it. And who wouldn’t want to be sponsored by somebody as understanding and as tough as old Jack Klugman, burn holes in his tie notwithstanding?  

The Alcoholics Anonymous I came into bore little resemblance to those reflections. Fifty-plus years have passed since the release of that film, and much has changed, not the least, social norms regarding smoking. When I started attending meetings, there were a handful where smoking was still allowed, but most groups had adopted a non-smoking policy, and the meeting list offered helpful little notations after the addresses, times and formats of the various groups. If a member didn’t want to be in a room where people smoked, there were plenty of options. And then a movement gained momentum to effect an overall ban on all smoking in all rooms all the time. Contemporary social currents prevailed.

Long before the 1965 Surgeon General’s report forced tobacco manufacturers to add warnings to their products, smoking was naturally perceived to be detrimental to health. In an O. Henry story that was published in 1906—1906!! —one character asks another if he’s got a “coffin nail” on him. It’s common sense. How could inhaling the residue of burning leaves possibly be good for you? 

Moralists and crusaders advancing the cause of public health have always assailed smoking, and you’ve got to hand it to them, they’re indefatigable. When the National Association of Attorneys General agreed to settle ongoing litigation against the major cigarette manufacturers in 1998 for $208 billion (that’s over one-fifth of a trillion—trillion with a T—for those keeping score at home) the final demonization of cigarette smoking was complete. On the one hand, the states, greatly responsible for covering the costs of Medicare and Medicaid, wanted to contain the outrageous outlay of keeping life-long smokers alive for their final ten or so years. Can’t blame them there. On the other hand, if the policy makers left bad enough alone and let people smoke their lungs out and thus die when they’re supposed to, say around age 65, they wouldn’t have to spend any money on them at all, because they’d be dead. That’s an extraordinarily cynical point of view, but I found it curious, then and now, that public health indignation—only within AA that I’m talking about now—found a hapless tackling dummy in the evils of smoking. 

Then again, it was an easy decision to make. Corralling the tougher problems in AA, such as ignorant and overwhelmed physicians dispensing psychoactive drugs like they’re giving out candy, confronting character defects on the rampage that refuse to be coped with, sexual predation, etc. would require committed sponsorship and a genuine, hotly debated group conscience. Few AA members have the time or the energy that might require. 

The AA sponsor with grey whiskers bristling on his chin, cigarette smoldering between his lips, car windows rolled up against a February chill, seems destined for the annals of AA lore, much like the Jack Alexander article itself.

Some years back my home group took a vote to do away with the smoking break at our beginner’s meeting, a large assemblage of men who found it hard to sit still for five minutes. But the smoking break had become a de facto end of the meeting, halfway to its conclusion. We were losing too many guys to the wild night right outside the door, and I don’t doubt that we never saw some of them again. Not necessarily anti-smoking (the group had long before decided to put a stop to that) it was anti-interruption, and in fact the break might well have been diverting us from our primary purpose. These days, if Shaky needs a butt, he can dip out for five minutes and come back in for the reminder of the meeting. My sympathies were with those who voted to end the break. In the vote I may have abstained, just not from the cigarettes. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m still smoking, but I’ve been quitting for a long time. I’m always quitting. I’m still quitting. Right after this one.

Harry Healy is a pseudonym for a newspaper columnist, author and a regular contributor to The Fix. He recently wrote about being a sober bartender, as well as a sober Catholic, and about the reason AA is anonymous.

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