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Kurt Harris, M.D.

Kurt G. Harris M.D.

Smoking Candy Cigarettes

We're all agents of culture.

Some of you are no doubt too young to remember them.

They came in two forms when I was a kid in the late 60's. The first was a hard white candy stick the same length as a standard filtered cigarette but just a bit thinner. No particular flavor, unless "sucrose" is a flavor. There was a red, actually pink, smudge painted onto one end to simulate the ember of a real smoke.

The other kind was the one I preferred. It was actually a stick of pink bubblegum. Denuded of the wrapper, this faux cancer-stick was not too realistic and certainly did not make you look tough, as it was pink, but if you could resist the urge to chew it right away, the dimensions were closer to a real cigarette and it had a white paper wrapper, the mouthward inch or so embossed with a printed pattern that made it look like a filter.

At least one of these - I know for sure the hard candy ones and I believe the gum ones as well - had a coating of fine confectioner's sugar that, with a sharp puff outward, you could imagine for about two puffs that you were part of the sophisticated world of those who fit in - the smokers.

After those two puffs, you could become a regular gum-chewing or candy crunching kid, or you could go for another "smoke".

The idea that a 9 year-old kid feigning a bad habit is more likely to take up the real and very deadly one it is modeled on might make you roll your eyes - now what, even candy cigarettes are bad?

But there may be something to the idea. It turns out that no tobacco company has ever sued a candy company for using their brand names on candy cigarettes. It seems obvious that candy companies counted on Junior's emulation of Dad and Big Tobacco allowed trademark infringement to enable candy companies to socialize the new recruits.

Does this remind you of anything?

When you go to the birthday party for your neighbor's kid, and you eat the birthday cake, what message does that send?

You show up looking trim and fit. You are pleased if people ask you how you lost weight. After eating this way for a few years, though, you are perhaps most comfortable if no one says anything at all.

You are weary of the reactions -the incredulity, the mockery, the eye-rolling. Pushing 50, you've tried explaining how a diet high in animal fats and low in grains works to keep you slim, but you've learned that the segue to explaining why you are not just cultivating an attractive corpse due to all that arterycloggingsaturatedfat that you live on is tedious and it gets you nowhere.

So, when the rectangular slab of Hy-Vee or Piggly-Wiggly birthday cake - frosted 3/8" thick with a stratum of oily granular sugar running through the middle to boot - is proferred, you say "thank you", flash a smile that only a trained psychologist would question, and accept it, holding the flimsy paper plate and plastic fork with both hands to keep it from tumbling onto the ground.

You repair to some corner of the party where you can nibble at the cake, maybe spill a few crumbs, and eventually hide the paper plate, now soggy with vegetable oil absorbed from the corpus of the cake.

Who are the agents of acculturation here?

Even if you are not Philip Morris, are you the candy company?

What do the kids think? Well, they probably think nothing at all. It's a birthday party after all and presents and sugar buzzes and juice and soda and treats are the sea they swim in.

All the time.

They will have no opportunity to say to you, "How come you don't want cake?" or to their parents - "how come that thin man doesn't eat cake?.

OK, young children probably wouldn't notice one way or another, but what if you said, "No, thanks" to the cake offer?

What if mom is serving, and asks you "Why not?.

Is there not a small but finite probability that you could give an answer that might lead to a discussion - a discussion that might change someone's life, even if it's not the questioner's.

How can we progress to a real food paradigm, free of cereal grains and evolutionarily novel industrial sweeteners and oils if we all keep pretending that we eat agricultural-industrial non-food just like everyone else.

Food that is constructed or manufactured instead of killed, food that is not real, food that everyone thinks is just fine for people to eat, as long as it goes easy on the "fat".

Maybe your response to me is "Hey, lighten up. I do my part. I eat a whole foods diet free of industrial garbage and I believe in the virtue of animal products. I can't be expected to ruin everyone's day all the time."

OK, you wear the Real Food Uniform often enough to do some good. No one expects you to get fired over diet advocacy at the office picnic.

If you nibble the cake to be neighborly, maybe the only damage you've done is some minimal aiding and abetting.

You've helped the enemy just a little with your vignette of The Thin and Fit Old Guy Who Proves It's Fine To Eat a Bunch of Sugar.

But what happens when you go home?

Do you train yourself to crave the manufactured food of the dominant paradigm?

Food that is designed to look and taste like signal dishes of 19th and 20th century industrially-inspired and manufactured food?

Is it because your kids will scream without a sugar vehicle? We all know 4-year-olds are physically powerful and are messed with at your peril! What will your kids do the first morning at University in the breakfast line when there is pile of all-you-can eat pancakes?

It's easy to make fun of commercial junk in a box like "low carb" pasta, zone and Atkins bars, etc. All stuff that may be gluten free or have sawdust in place of high glycemic-index starch, but whose real reason for existence is just to appropriate what should properly be freestanding, honest, real food back into the maw of corporate big-agra commercial interests.

I am on record as saying that sweets should be mostly avoided if you do not want to have difficulty avoiding sweets.

I cannot prove it, but it also seems plausible that eating and drinking artificial sweeteners is a physiologic version of "smoking candy cigarettes". There is likely to be some neuro-hormonal conditioning along with three diet sodas a day. Is there any way a diet soda habit makes it easier to avoid the hyper-ubiquitous sweets we are surrounded by?

And planning for "cheat days" makes just as much sense as a weekly Marlboro red for ex-smokers or the odd line of coke once in a while after you have left Hazelden.

If you're not as evil as the tobacco company or as cynical as the candy company, are you still unconsciously the kid at school sharing cigarette -shaped treats with his playmates at recess?

Are you nurturing the seed of the dominant industrial agriculture-based dietary paradigm, an unconscious conscript in the sugar-is-innocent-and-fat-is-evil reserve army?

If you are a vector for cultural change, which way is the arrow pointing?

Wear your Real Food Uniform.

Active Duty.

Fly your freak-flag high.

Say no to the cake.

History of childhood candy cigarette use is associated with tobacco smoking by adults.

BMJ article on candy cigarettes

Where to get them

Lustig video on fructose

Top photo by Sally Mann - Candy Cigarette - 1989 - reproduced under fair use doctrine