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Confessions of a Former Smoker

It was a simple status update, but it got more likes and comments than anything I had ever posted before:

Let me step back a bit. My love affair with cigarettes started as a young teenager hiding with my brother on the roof of the family garage. Somehow we managed to get a hold of some menthol cigarettes and tested them out. They didn’t stick this time though – that happened when I started as a freshman in college. I fondly recall my dorm neighbour, Jay Stagg, and I sitting in the hallway smoking pack after pack of Camel Lights after the day’s classes. Sometimes we were too lazy to find an empty can to use as an ashtray so we would just put them out on the carpet (really). Those days you could smoke just about anywhere and while they were foul and offensive no one seemed to mind one bit. Or at least they didn’t say anything. This was also the time when I discovered clove cigarettes, but little did I know the role they would play in my life much later on.

In my third year of university I studied in Luxembourg, and this is where the affair moved into something more permanent. From sitting at the back of the plane and smoking throughout the flight, to enjoying all the cafés the continent had to offer, I knew I was truly hooked. During my fourth year – back in the US this time – having a smoke was the last thing I would do at night, and the first thing I would do in the morning. I loved those things so much I wouldn’t even get out of bed.

I moved to Switzerland right after graduation and worked for a bank. In Zurich at the time it was completely normal for people to smoke at their desks, and I surely didn’t want to be the odd man out. When I worked on the trading floor, just about everyone chain smoked while staring at their multiple screens or yelling into the telephones. The bank moved me to Hong Kong and by this time people were forced to smoke in the pantry. It seemed like quite an injustice at the time but we were willing to make such sacrifices for the sake of a cigarette. I recall my pride in being able to order my favourite brand – still Camel Lights – in Cantonese (“soon LAW-taw mmm goi”). That, and learning to count to 10, plus a few swear words, was just about all the Cantonese I managed to learn in 1.5 years.

Rolling Kretek

By the time I moved back to Zurich in 1995 the Swiss had decided that employees smoking at their desks wasn’t so cool anymore so, like in Hong Kong, we were exiled into the pantry. I am pretty sure I was only smoking about a pack a day at this point. But the transfer to Jakarta in 1997 would change all of that.

Arriving in Indonesia, I remember encountering a smell I hadn’t experienced since college: clove cigarettes. This was something very special because in college I didn’t realize they came from Indonesia at all, and the scent of kretek aroused me like a reunion with a childhood girlfriend who has grown up to become a stripper. I was smoking white cigarettes at the time though, and the fact they cost less than a dollar a pack and were available simply everywhere meant that my affair with tobacco would continue and even thrive. In my position as a stockbroker, I got to learn the inside stories of the biggest manufacturers at the time – HM Sampoerna and Gudang Garam – as they were listed on the stock exchange. I recall being so impressed with the size and scale of their businesses – as well as the rich history of the industry.

My relationship with tobacco extended beyond just the habit – it enabled me to recognize and appreciate something so special as the Indonesian kretek industry. And the more I learned the more fascinated I was. Hundreds of companies producing thousands of brands and employing millions of people – yet so much was unknown about it. So when I left the bank in 1998, I took a year and a half and wrote a book about the humble yet mighty kretek.

Mark and Pramoedya in 1999

My book research travels took me on a trip from Makassar to Manado, visiting clove plantations. It took me on dozens of trips across the island of Java to the main kretek centres of Kudus, Surabaya and Malang and the main tobacco growing regions of Temanggung and Magelang. It enabled me to meet and befriend the legendary writer (and kretek smoker) Pramoedya Ananta Toer. We became so close that he even wrote the foreword to my book, and I became his publisher. I could argue that cigarettes are the main reason I am a book publisher until today.

After the kretek book was published in 2000, I got to travel as a speaker to conventions in North America and Europe, as well as experience what it is like to be banned in Singapore. The book was more or less positively reviewed in most major periodicals, which for a first book isn’t too bad. In hindsight I am quite certain that if I hadn’t been a smoker, I wouldn’t and couldn’t have written the book.

For the past 25 years, cigarettes have been a loyal friend. Camels, Luckies and Marlboros (and the occasional Djarum Super) were a familiar constant in all the different places I have lived and visited – any many of these fascinating trips and experiences were, in a way, because of them. Curiously, it seems like all of my best friends over the years were smokers as well. Nothing quite bonds people like sharing a cigarette while huddling outside a building in freezing weather or in a cramped room in an airport.

I felt cigarettes defined me in a way and became a permanent part of my character. But I have recently discovered that all good things, and many relationships, must come to an end at some point and it’s now time to move on. It’s now been 100 days since we’ve parted and, while I look back with fond memories of our time together, I am certain I made the right decision. And I am very much looking forward to the next stage in my life. Wish me luck!

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