Peter Jennings: Burning Buildings, Burning Cigarettes, and Dying People

Peter Jennings was a Canadian-born broadcaster and naturalized U.S. citizen most Americans were proud to know. With his reputation for integrity, Jennings served our nation well as a news anchor spanning four decades on national TV. Like most Americans, you likely welcomed him into your home to get the news in his unbiased way.

At one time a heavy smoker, Jennings quit for more than a decade, knowing full well the deadly consequences of smoking. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, and he started smoking again on that fateful September day in 2001. Unknown to non-smokers is the anxiety-relieving effect smoking can have. Unknown to smokers who have quit is the effect it can have on their brain gene expression and reinforcement of neural pathways over time. That’s why when stressful events occur, the urge to light up can get ignited.

Former Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Dr. Alan Lescher, used to say that addictions were like a switch being flipped in the brain. Before the switch got flipped by the use of a drug, the person could stop relatively easily. However, once the switch was flipped, due to unknown mechanisms a strong probability of relapse follows. These unknown mechanisms could involve long-term increased expression of genes that weren’t previously being expressed. They could involve the reinforcement of neural pathways similar to strong habits that are hard to break. Similar mechanisms can be involved, whether one is using alcohol or speed or heroin or tobacco/nicotine.

In addition, smoking provides an anxiety-relieving effect for many users. I certainly don’t know exactly what Peter Jennings was experiencing on 9/11, but picture that day, when people in New York City were burning… falling to their deaths… or breathing ash and dodging fragments from buildings as they came tumbling down, when the whole nation was stressed, when the possible future adverse effects of smoking seemed insignificant, it was then that Peter Jennings, who personally felt connected and identified with America, lit up again, perhaps just like so many American soldiers who lit up during battles, and later suffered the dire consequences.

Unfortunately, Peter Jennings, like so many others, developed inoperable lung cancer. A dedicated man, he wanted to continue working and took all the treatments he could. On one of his last days, he had wanted to go to work, but by the time he got to the door he knew he couldn’t—such was the effect of chemotherapy on his energy. On August 7, 2005, this courageous journalist who had graced our TV screens as a guest in our living rooms died from smoking-induced lung cancer. A tragic loss.

From the example of Peter Jennings and others, we can recognize the strong possibility of relapse even after a person has quit smoking. Better methods and programs are clearly needed to help ex-smokers to not light up again.

America suffered an attack on 9/11 that destroyed buildings, damaged our national sense of security, and killed approximately 3,000 citizens. But we’re continuing to experience another attack—the tobacco industry’s massive use of money for advertising and sponsorship to present the use of cigarettes as “normal”, to influence politicians who make the laws, and to add chemicals that help ensure users become addicted.

In the five years following 9/11/2001, more than 2,200,000 Americans have died from smoking. Compare that to the 6,000 Americans who died on 9/11 and in the war efforts since then. More than 20,000,000 Americans will likely die between 2000 and 2050 from the effects of smoking. How much more seriously should we take this attack on the lifeblood of our nation? And why aren’t we?

It used to be that 90 percent of recruits to smoking were under 18. While that number has dropped in last few years, it’s still far too high at around 80 percent. When will we as a nation stop viewing this Tobacco Holocaust as normal and start seeing it as a war, one that specifically targets our children? When will we collectively start to take serious action against a real but unnecessary enemy?