The Magazine

I’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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"You must be busy packing,” an editor once said to me, five days before I flew to Europe to do an article for him. Yeah, I felt like saying, about as busy as you are preparing your retirement party. I pride myself on packing simply and quickly: a few shirts, underclothes, a baggie full of adapters and cords, and a book. I could practically stuff it all into a briefcase.

I’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

Photo Credit: Chris Gash

The only problem is my toiletry kit, which is always jammed so full that I need a full-sized suitcase to accommodate it. Not that I am one of those soigné men who travel with a lot of pomades, creams, colognes, washes, clippers, emery boards, loofah brushes, and mustache-curlers. I wouldn’t tell you if I were, but there is a long trail of visual evidence that I’m not. The beautifying part of my luggage—razor, toothpaste and toothbrush, deodorant, and a 4-ounce vial of industrial-strength dandruff shampoo—fits easily into one Ziploc lunch bag.

There are a few other things. One is Advil PM, for fighting jet lag. What a product. It’ll drop you like a sack of grain. A nose-hair clipper, about which little need be said. There are also certain items for episodes that seem random but somehow occur on every trip: Sudafed for colds, regular Advil for headaches, shoelaces for when you break one.

The main reason why my suitcase nonetheless winds up looking like a mobile medicine cabinet is nicotine lozenges. These are manufactured under the brand name “Commit” by the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo-SmithKline as a means of helping people through those first, difficult days after quitting smoking. They have certainly helped me through my first 2,750 or so. I have been sucking them happily for years. The problem is, one feels distinctly bad when one doesn’t have them. One feels like weeping or screaming, in fact. You would almost think they were addictive.

At home, you can get Commit in any CVS. In Europe, it is called Ni-Quitin, and it is much harder to find, particularly if you happen to be in a country where people have more important things to worry about than whether they quit smoking or not.

I remember being unable to find nicotine lozenges at all in Israel a few years ago, although a long search did turn up some substitutes. There were these odd little plastic straws, shaped like a clarinet reed or an FDR-style cigarette holder, out of which you could, with great effort, draw a little bit of concentrated nicotine vapor. There were “micro tabs,” small enough so you could fit a couple dozen on your thumbnail. These were so unpleasant to ingest that I assumed they were meant for grinding into powder and dissolving in water.

So it is better to carry a two-weeks’ supply of nicotine than to get caught a day short and have to, say, go hunting for them in Amsterdam on Ascension Thursday, a national holiday when all the pharmacies are closed, or to take a taxi across town after midnight (I have done this in both Brussels and Cologne) and wake up the “24-hour pharmacist,” a description that does not mean that the pharmacy is open, but rather that, if you ring the bell for the apartment above the shop, the pharmacist will wake up, come downstairs in his pajamas, collect your money through the mail slot, and hand you what you need. 

These mint-flavored marvels come in 2mg and 4mg sizes in the United States. In Spain, they come in a 1mg size, but that is a dosage so low that it might actually leave you in danger of quitting nicotine altogether. I have sometimes wondered whether manufacturers of nicotine substitutes lobby to keep low-dosage products off the market in the United States. In my more cynical moments, in fact, I have suspected “Pharma” (as the conspiracy-minded call the big drug companies) of devising and bankrolling the entire anti-smoking brouhaha in the first place, as a means of transferring income from Carolina tobacco farmers to corporate chemical engineers. 

I am embarrassed to say I know how to ask for nicotine lozenges in half a dozen languages I don’t even speak. Last Thursday, when, having failed to pack the requisite stash, I was standing in front of a scowling pharmacist saying, “Zuigtabletten, alstublieft,” I began to think I should get rid of this habit altogether. 

Maybe smoking would help.

Christopher Caldwell


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