Greg Gibson’s quest to quit smoking started with an email. It was late June. Gibson had just sent out an email blast inviting people to an upcoming anti-smoking conference, and, an occasional smoker, it caught my attention.
Tongue in cheek, I quickly responded: “Funny, I feel like I need a cig now … ”
His reply: “Ha Ha … me too … as a pack-a-day smoker. … Thinking about covering this? I have to have at least one smoking buddy there … ;)”
That stopped me. Gibson is the housing administrator for Austin Travis County Integral Care, an agency that helps people with mental illness and developmental disabilities. One of his duties is to help implement the agency’s recently adopted smoke-free policy for all of its campuses, including its emergency facilities and apartments for people with mental illness. And he smokes at least a pack of Marlboro Reds 100s a day?
“OMG, the more interesting story is the smoke-free pusher being a pack a day smoker!!!!” I wrote. “If you decide to quit, then I’ll do a story.” That was that. After some not-so-gentle nudging from wife (and smoking partner) Cindy, Gibson agreed to quit on July 7.
“I know I need to quit,” he said. “I need to. I need to.”
Gibson was practically born with a cigarette in his mouth. The 49-year-old Wichita Falls native comes from a family of hard-core smokers. When he was about 18 months old, just for giggles, his grandfather put a cigar in his mouth and snapped a picture. By the time Gibson was a teenager, he was regularly sneaking cigarettes.
When he was 14, his mother found a pack under his mattress.
“She put them beside my bed with an ashtray and a lighter and started buying them for me,” Gibson said.
Today, even smoking near your kids is enough to trigger a tirade from a total stranger. But in 1965, almost 42 percent of Americans smoked, compared with about 20 percent today, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Marlboro Man was in his glory. Candy cigarettes were a staple in drug stores.
“We were all taught to smoke when we were little kids,” said Cindy Gibson, who quit with her husband last week.
Smoking has taken its toll on Greg Gibson’s life. His mom, who had emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died of a heart attack. His father had multiple bypasses. And of himself, Gibson says, “My lungs are shot.” He also suffers from tooth and gum problems caused by years of smoking.
He’s tried to quit a few times over the years, to no avail. “I’m an addict,” he said.
In March 2010, Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department received a $7 million grant to decrease tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke. Since then, the department has worked on smoking cessation efforts with schools, health care facilities, faith-based organizations and businesses.
The department also created the “Ashtrayler,” a vintage trailer adorned with ashtrays signed by people who pledge to quit smoking. Gibson signed one. And on Feb. 1 — the day Integral Care’s administrative offices went smoke-free — he quit. It lasted 36 hours. But when he resumed smoking, he says he found himself puffing less often.
“He was using two packs of cigarettes and cut down to one,” said Dr. Sandeepkumar Singh, director of Integral Care’s smoking cessation efforts. That is amazing.”
Gibson wants this to be the last time he quits. He wants to breathe easier and have more energy. He’s ready to stop paying $6 or $7 for a pack of cigarettes.
At 11:15 p.m. on July 6, Gibson smoked one last time. Eleven hours later, he was surprisingly chipper, posing for a Statesman photo in front of the Ashtrayler and showing off the nicotine patch stuck to his chest. He encouraged me to sign my own ashtray pledging to quit, which I did.
Now he just has to stay strong, he said. “I just need to realize when my brain is trying to trick me or cajole me.”
His wife says she’s got another plan.
“If he sneaks any, I’ll tell on him,” she said. “I’ll put up posters of him saying, ‘Have you seen me smoking?’ “