Obama tries to drop dirty little vice

His smoking will either humanize him or hurt his image in a presidential run, experts say.

Published February 7, 2007

WASHINGTON - Sen. Barack Obama is trying to snuff out a habit before it hurts his run for president: He's trying to quit smoking.

The Illinois Democrat, who will formally launch his campaign Saturday, said his wife, Michelle, persuaded him to quit.

"My wife wisely indicated that this is a potentially stressful situation, running for president," he said Tuesday. "She wanted to lay down a very clear marker that she wants me healthy."

The stakes are high for Obama not just because of the health hazards but because voters might be wary of a presidential candidate hooked on cigarettes.

"For many people, smoking is seen as a sign of weakness and lack of willpower, " said John Banzhaf III, a law professor at George Washington University and executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, a group opposed to smoking. "A presidential candidate would not want to be seen as lacking strong will or lacking determination."

But others say Obama's smoking - and his struggle to quit - could enhance his image.

"I think it humanizes him," said Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, a political Web site. "He's got a vice. We all have vices."

Obama has said he often smoked as a response to stress, particularly during campaigns and while writing books. Asked about it in 2005, he invoked a biblical phrase: "The flesh is weak."

But he emphasized Tuesday that he was discreet about his smoking.

"I've never been a heavy smoker and don't smoke in front of folks or in the house," he said.

Like many smokers, he has been unable to quit.

"It's one of those habits - you can quit for a while and then you start back up," he said.

Obama's effort was applauded by antismoking activists.

"Whenever you have high-profile people do this, it has a secondary effect in encouraging others to try," said Stan Glantz, director of the tobacco control research center at the University of California at San Francisco.

Obama said Tuesday he was making progress and was being helped by Nicorette, a gum that provides a small dose of nicotine. It "works pretty well," he said.

But antismoking activists said Obama should not rely on the gum alone. They urged him to seek counseling for behavior modification.

"He needs to look at the stresses in his life that would have prompted him to have a cigarette," said Bill Blatt, manager of tobacco control programs for the American Lung Association. "What is he going to do instead? Some people squeeze a stress ball. Some call a friend."

Glantz suggested that Obama call one of the toll-free help lines, such as 1-800-QUIT-NOW.

Joel Spitzer, who runs smoking cessation programs in Chicago and is educational director of WhyQuit.com, said Obama should skip the gum and go cold turkey.

"He needs to understand that once he quits, he's dealing with a drug addiction," Spitzer said. "If he administers that drug in shape or form - a cigar, a cigarette or Nicorette - he's introducing nicotine back in his system."

Banzhaf said the senator should be patient.

"Most smokers who try don't succeed the first time. But the more you try, the more likely you are to succeed."

Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202 463-0575.

Advice for Obama

Antismoking groups offered these tips for Sen. Barack Obama in his effort to quit smoking:

- Be patient. It typically takes smokers six to nine attempts to quit.

- Find new stress relief. Squeeze a stress ball or call a friend.

- Get therapy. Behavior modification therapy helps people avoid vulnerable moments when they might want a cigarette.