Nicotine’s Worst Foe: A Real Tobacco Addict

Hey, smoker: When was the last time you really looked at a pack of cigarettes? Really looked, like you were searching for the hidden message contained in the mumbo jumbo of the Surgeon General’s warning. Steve McFadden remembers. It was an early spring day at the Jersey Shore, a time of year that signifies hope and renewal for most of us, but is just another one of those dreary, endless, dispiriting non-summer seasons for full-time beach residents. On this particular dreary, endless, dispiriting day, Mr. McFadden was studying his pack of Marlboro Lights. “Look, it was early spring at the shore: not a whole lot to do,” he explained.

His eyes were drawn to the package’s reassuring and familiar colors of white and gold. “Reminded me of the papacy,” he said. After several moments of such contemplation, it was time to move on to other business. Mr. McFadden’s eyes moved from the white and gold to the black type underneath the Marlboro Lights crest. “Lowered tar and nicotine,” the black type said.

Mr. McFadden contemplated this interesting claim, as a few more seconds whizzed by and summer drew even closer. “Lowered tar and nicotine? Isn’t that interesting? Never thought about it too much. Lowered tar and nicotine. Very interesting.” Several minutes of an early spring day at the shore had been consumed.

Then, as he held his package of Marlboro Lights in one hand while checking his watch on the other (“Only a few more hours and it will be dusk, and another spring day at the beach will be history!”), an idea surged through Mr. McFadden’s brain like the swell of a winter nor’easter. “Lowered tar and nicotine? Lowered tar and nicotine! If they can lower nicotine in cigarettes, then they can remove it,” he thought. “Like they take caffeine out of coffee. And if you take nicotine out of cigarettes, you could smoke at will, like eating candy. But you wouldn’t become an addict.” He grabbed a dictionary and looked up nicotine: “A poisonous, water-soluble alkaloid …”

And so, on a count-the-hours-till-sundown spring day at the Jersey Shore, Mr. McFadden came up with his own personal crusade: Forget these piecemeal assaults on Big Tobacco. Take out the toxin and just sell tar. All the flavor and none of the poison! He’s about to launch a Web site called No Nicotine Now. Cable television talk-show hosts want him to come on and talk about his revelation.

Now, lest you conclude that Mr. McFadden is one of them there neo-Prohibitionists whose sleep is disturbed by nightmares in which people are having fun, you should know that during the two hours your devoted correspondent spent with him over lunch, Mr. McFadden went through approximately 12.8 Marlboro Lights. (I lost exact count–it’s tough peering through a smoke screen.) Mr. McFadden, then, is exhibit A in the addicting properties of the poison called nicotine.

“Why do you need nicotine?” he asked in the midst of inhaling same. Mr. McFadden is one of those smokers who takes long, impassioned drags, his cheeks collapsing inward as he sucks down the hated poison. A single cigarette survives only four such assaults before it is dispatched, shattered and bent, to the ash tray. “Tar is where you get the flavor from. So why do you need nicotine, except to make people addicts?”

Mr. McFadden sees addicts like himself every day, although they are a good 30 years younger than his 57 years. He owns a bar in Spring Lake, N.J., a shore town that received unwanted attention when The New York Times singled it out this summer as a well-tended, uncrowded and lovely alternative to the Hamptons. Before moving to Spring Lake a few years ago, Mr. McFadden ran a couple of midtown bars, Ryan McFadden’s and Maguire’s Cafe, on Second Avenue across from the Daily News building. His name popped up in the gossip columns on occasion, and the late Mike McAlary dubbed him one of New York’s great old-fashioned barmen. Imagine what McAlary would have done with Mr. McFadden, the nicotine addict who’s getting ready to become the scourge of Big Tobacco.

Mr. McFadden says his Web site will feature his own rages against nicotine as well as some genuine investigative journalism about tobacco and smoking. He has all of the passion and a bit of the moral certainty of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but he manages to deliver his message in the manner of one addict sympathizing with another. “My first pack of cigarettes was bought in May 1958,” he said. “The occasion was the junior prom at Manhattan Prep. My tobacco saga began at the age of 15. Some 40 years later, the smoke still reeks in my lungs, my home and my clothing.”

That’s not to say that Mr. McFadden wants to stop smoking. But he’d rather not be an addict. It’s that damned useless nicotine, he says.

He’s onto something, thanks to a long, lonely day at the Jersey Shore.