One afternoon, in the middle of the Great Recession, I called New York City's NYC Quits hotline, and when a counselor with a soft, kind voice picked up the phone, I took a deep breath and told her that I was ready to quit smoking and wanted to start nicotine replacement therapy. Here's what I didn't tell her: I had never actually smoked a single cigarette in my life.
In 2006, I quit my job writing for a trade magazine in Southern California and moved to New York to attend Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. That's where I met my friend Barry Petchesky, who's now a staff writer for Deadspin, a sports site owned by Gawker Media. In journalism school, you tend to drink a lot of coffee, smoke a lot of cigarettes, or a combination of the two. We were working on stories around the clock—stories that often got published in national publications—and taking coffee and cigarette breaks gave you a chance to step away from an item you were piecing together and come back to it with a fresh eyes. You'd hit a wall or get writer's block, and after getting up from your keyboard and going out for a cup of coffee or a cigarette, something would click and you'd figure out how to end a story or what to cut to tighten up a paragraph. I was firmly in the coffee-drinkers camp, and Barry smoked, going through as many cigarettes as he needed to finish a story.
Four years prior, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration launched a series of initiatives to lower the smoking rate in New York City. Bloomberg asked the City Council to amend the city's anti-smoking law to ban smoking in all bars and restaurants, and the city's Health Department began its efforts to reduce tobacco use among New Yorkers, resulting in the formation of NYC Quits.
"With the patches, you can just put it on and forget about it. With the gum—I mean, I think it's adorable that you think seven is a lot. You should have said you smoked a pack a day."
Barry had previously made four attempts to quit smoking, and his fifth was in the middle of our graduate program. He had discovered in a television commercial that the NYC Quits initiative was offering free nicotine patches or gum for any New Yorker who was seriously considering to quit smoking, so he called up the hotline, answered a few questions, and was sent a box of nicotine patches.
"Each time I tried I patch, I could feel it physically doing something," Barry said. "It's better than going cold turkey. You think, 'OK, I don't need cigarettes, I can get what I need from this little patch. And they're expensive!' They probably sent me $80 worth of patches."
DESPITE HAVING THE PATCHES, Barry wasn't able to kick his habit, which he says was mostly due to stress. We had a series of deadlines to meet on a weekly basis, our class was caught up in a ridiculous cheating scandal that occurred in an ethics class, and we were constantly being told how difficult it would be to get a job in an industry that was laying off reporters from news organizations left and right. Then the financial crisis hit.
Barry moved in with his parents while picking up freelance work, and I moved in with a fellow classmate in Queens. Meanwhile, New York's cigarette tax spiked to become the highest in the nation, and New Yorkers began paying an average of $8 for a pack of smokes. To cut down on expenses, Barry decided he'd try to quit again and called the NYC Quits hotline to ask for nicotine patches, only to be told that he had already gone through the process a year ago and couldn't get any more.
"They said that they had me in their records and couldn't send me anything," Barry told me recently, "but that they could have a counselor talk to me on the phone if I wanted one. And I said, 'No thanks.'"
Barry was earning $12 a post while blogging part-time for a sports site and couldn't afford to go out and buy patches, so he convinced his girlfriend, who didn't smoke, to call the hotline, talk to a counselor, and score a package of nicotine patches.
"She had done it for me, but not happily," Barry said. "When she got the patches, a counselor called her to follow up, and she didn't like that. But it's pretty awesome, actually, if you're a smoker. They just don't dump the patches on you and leave you on your own. They're going to call you and check in on you to see how you're doing and give you more advice. She didn't particularly like getting those calls because she wasn't the one who was trying to quit smoking."
Barry cut the nicotine patches in half to try to make his two-week supply last a month, but he ran out of them after making some progress. That's when he asked me to call the hotline.
The counselor asked about my health history and how long I had been smoking.
"All my life," I said. "It's a serious addiction."
"How soon after you wake up do you think about smoking?" she asked.
"It's the first thing I think about."
"How often do you smoke?"
"How many cigarettes do you smoke per day?"
"A ton. It's a serious problem."
"But specifically how many?"
I took a moment to count in my head what seemed like a lot of cigarettes for someone to smoke.
"Oh, that's actually not too terrible!" the counselor said. Instead of the nicotine patches, she'd send me a box of nicotine gum, which she recommended for a smoker who smoked seven cigarettes a day.
The call ended soon after that, and a few days later a box of nicotine gum landed on my doorstep. I gave the gum to Barry, who laughed when I recounted the conversation I had with the counselor.
"I tried the gum, and it tasted horrible," Barry said. "And it didn't last very long. If you're addicted to nicotine, you're going to chew more gum than you're supposed to. With the patches, you can just put it on and forget about it. With the gum—I mean, I think it's adorable that you think seven is a lot. You should have said you smoked a pack a day."
A MONTH OR SO later, a counselor called me to see how I was doing.
"It was hard at first, but I think I'm done smoking for good," I said, because I didn't know what else to say. The counselor congratulated me and told me to call the hotline if I had any urges to start smoking again. I told Barry that I felt a little bad because I probably messed up the city's statistics for the program. Was I cheating the program? Was he?
"From my point of view, you shouldn't feel bad because this tells the city—even if your case is not true—that this is an effective program that's helping people, which means it can continue to get funding," Barry said. "And I'm sure it is helping people, and I'm sure that there are people who are lying for their friends to help them quit."
I told Barry that I had rationalized my lying because I felt I was truly doing something to help him quit.
Despite all of this, Barry is still smoking today. He says he wants to quit because cigarette prices are even higher now—a pack of Marlboro Reds will cost you $14.50 in New York.
"I'll try quitting again at some point," Barry said. "I don't know what it'll finally take—maybe having a kid or something. I don't see myself smoking forever. My girlfriend hates it and wants me to quit. She doesn't want to commit fraud again for me to do it, though."