March 24, 2018
Living Latest News | Poll Questions | March for Our Lives | Marissa Kennedy | Maine Axes

The long journey to cutting cigarettes loose

By Emmet Meara, Special to the BDN

It has come to this. You can buy “loosies” on the streets of New York City for 75 cents, two for a buck. That would make an entire pack (20) of cigarettes $10-$15.

I can remember when they would cost a quarter and you would get two pennies packed in the cellophane. One of the very few positive things I have accomplished in this long life is that I have given up smoking.

There was a day (many, in fact) when I would gladly have spent a buck for two Newports. I would have spent a buck for one, especially in the morning.

With New York cigarette prices up and the number of smoke-friendly places down, the black market for “loosies” is now thriving on the streets, according to the New York Times. The administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has outlawed smoking in restaurants, bars and playgrounds, and outside hospital entrances. Even city parks, beaches and pedestrian plazas soon will be off-limits to smokers. Then there have been successive rounds of taxes — the most recent one, a $1.60 rise in the state tax in July — that raised the price of a pack of cigarettes to $12.50 at many Midtown newsstands.

“The tax went up, and we started selling 10 times as much,” said sidewalk cigarette vendor Lonnie “Loosie” Warner. “Bloomberg thinks he’s stopping people from smoking. He’s just turning them onto loosies.”

Warner told the Times that he and each of his two partners took home $120 to $150 a day, profit made from selling about 2,000 cigarettes, mostly two at a time. Each transaction is a misdemeanor offense. He has been arrested 15 times, the small cost of doing business.

It is now impossible to believe that we used to smoke in our houses, cars, offices, buses, restaurants, even in bed.

When I was growing up, you not only smoked, you had to smoke. The only excuse was being a long-distance runner (rare) or having emphysema.

Like everyone else in West Roxbury, I started young, maybe 13. We had a smoker’s club at Billings Field and it was my turn to buy a 25-cent pack every two weeks. Since my allowance was the same, 25 cents every two weeks (honest to God), my love and addiction for cigarettes was sorely tested.

I can show you the exact spot where I smoked my first one, a Fatima stolen from my father’s unguarded pack. Naturally it was on the New Haven Railroad tracks, where all good things happened, such as throwing rocks at the railroad signals. I spent more time on “the tracks” than I did in my house.

I inhaled deeply like they did in the movies and I could feel the poison going up and down my legs, then my arms and, finally, to my head. I was so dizzy that I almost fell down. Naturally, I kept smoking. It was so — cool.

Why does anyone ever have that second cigarette?

When you started riding the MTA bus to Roslindale High School, you had to light up as soon as the bus started moving. You loved it when the old ladies glared and asked you to put out the cigarette. Then, we smoked furiously on the sidewalk outside high school until the very final bell. We lit up as soon as our sneakers made it out the door at 3 p.m.

Some of us even smoked in the bathrooms during school hours. Not me.

You could not drive six feet in a car without a cigarette. You could not have a cup of coffee without at least one “butt,” maybe two. Every male shirt pocket held a pack of Camels, maybe Lucky Strikes. No filters. Never heard of them. At a good party, you would smoke two packs of cigarettes (because they were so very cool), and wonder why you couldn’t breathe the next day.

I must have been in my 30s when I figured out it was not really all that cool. I struggled mightily and smoked OPBs (other people’s brands) for years before I finally quit, thanks to my father.

In his last days, he was unconscious in a hospital bed. I watched in horror as he pulled an imaginary pack of cigarettes from his imaginary pocket, took out an imaginary cigarette and lit it with an imaginary match. He drew it to his lips and inhaled just as hard as he could, trying to get that one last dose of nicotine.

The nurse who was watching said it was a common occurrence among unconscious patients.

It was then that smoking and I parted ways once and for all.

The idea of spending $12.50 a day for a pack of cigarettes is inconceivable today. My allowance would never stand it.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

You may also like