The Standard Interview

Lewis Lapham on the Allure of Smoking

Judging by the traffic numbers for this post, quite a few of you are interested in hearing writer and editor Lewis Lapham discuss his love affair with cigarettes with a psychiatrist at The Standard, East Village this coming Wednesday, May 1st, from 9-10PM (doors open at 8!) Lapham deftly edited Harper's for several of its best decades before launching a much-loved quarterly of his own a few years back. He was kind enough to give us a preview ...

STANDARD CULTURE: How long have you been smoking?

LEWIS LAPHAM: I started smoking when I was seventeen. I’m now 78, so you do the math. It’s 61 years, right?

Sounds right. What do you smoke and how much?

I now smoke Parliament cigarettes, but when I was younger I smoked Camels. I shifted to the filter somewhere in my 40s. I would say maybe two packs a day?

That much?


Do you smoke inside?

Uh, inside where? [laughs] It depends.

Why do you think you haven’t given it up?

Well, first of all, I enjoy it, and I’m certainly by now addicted to it, but I regard it as a pleasure. And it is, according to my physician, not apt to kill me. He says to me, “Lewis, you’re gonna die, we all die, but you never die of the thing you think you’re gonna die of.” It’s also a matter of genes, really, at least according to my physician. Some people can accommodate it and others can’t. It’s the luck of the DNA. I was totally fine as of my latest check-up, which was a year ago.

That's great news.

I mean, I have ailments that come upon everybody with age, and I’m not, nor was I ever, in very good physical shape. I was never much of an athlete. You never know whether you’re perfectly fine or not, but, yes, according to the last report, I am not under threat from death by smoking.

Lapham at work

In The Tipping Point Malcom Gladwell argues that if "cool people" — i.e. influencers, like yourself — gave up smoking, everyone else would. Your thoughts?

I think that’s probably true. I grew up in the 1940s and everybody who was anybody in the movies smoked heavily — Humphrey Bogart, Clark Cable, even John Wayne. That stayed more or less in fashion through the '50s. Even in the '60s when people shift to pot, it’s still cool to smoke cigarettes. In advertising and in films and in the culture in general it was considered a mark of sophistication.

It wasn’t something that was discussed, it was just what people did.


Are you the last holdout among your friends?

No, I don’t think so. I know quite a few people who smoke. My wife smokes and one of my three children still smokes. And among my friends? Yeah, a few of them do.

So, is it an obsession? Do you think about it a lot?

No, I don’t. It’s a childish unwillingness to go along with authority, really. I resent being told that something is prohibited, you know? People are trying to prohibit me for the interest of my own good, of course, but I resist governesses and government surveillance, in general. I also think the dangers of second-hand smoke are exaggerated. I mean, there have been tests where they put a rat in a small plastic box and then pump in the smoke of a thousand cigarettes and let the rat walk around that death-dealing cloud for however long the experiment lasts, without any effect on the rat.

So, to me, there’s an element of Weapons of Mass destruction like the ones that were supposed to be hidden in the bunkers in Iraq. And, you know, it’s political in a way. It’s a form of sumptuary law imposed for the convenience of the rich on the pleasure of the poor. And the notion of people seeking to live forever I find somehow … I’d have to think about the adjective, but it strikes me as futile. For what reason and to what purpose?

The latest issue of Lapham's Quarterly

What about the cost? Cigarettes in New York are up to $15 a pack.

Well, sure, but the black market is humming along, too. [laughs]

Particularly on the Web. Do you spend a lot of time online?

No, I do not. I don’t have a computer, but fortunately people in my office do and they’ll print out things that they think I would like to read. I read the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the FT every day, and most of what I’ve seen on the Internet is merely a rehashing of what’s already been said.

There are Web sites that are better than that, and I do read those. People print them out for me, whether it’s TomDispatch or TruthOut or the one that’s run by Le Monde in France. Otherwise, it would be very distracting. I get distracted by the pop-ups and the hyperlinks. I feel like I’m being reduced to a wildebeast sniffing the wind!

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