Nicotine—again, like coffee—can also account for heightened alertness. There’s one high. And you know how you feel after a large meal? Like you could sleep in the car on the way home? Well, a little cigarette-induced increase of acetylcholine and norepinephrine to the dome will help with that. Counterintuitively, cigarettes also help reduce anxiety, thanks to the shot of beta-endorphins you get from puffing. Finally, if that mind-blowing sex or meal felt like an accomplishment or a reward, a cigarette on top of it only increases that feeling, by extending the dopamine you got from the experience—as nicotine also acutely activates brain reward systems and induces what’s been characterized as a long-lasting increase in reward sensitivity. Which helps if you feel slightly guilty about the meal (or person) you just indulged in. It’s OK. It happens to all of us.
The bottom line is this: Smoking a cigarette after eating a meal feels goddamn incredible. It’s a physical, psychological, and emotional relief. It’s the finish line. It’s the postindulgence indulgence. The worst part? It feels spectacular in a manner so many less destructive things should feel, but don’t. But that’s always the case, isn’t it?
It’s only recently that smoking and dining publicly parted ways in America, and that the stigma has grown. Until a few years ago, most restaurants were divided into “smoking” and “nonsmoking” sections—unimaginable for the most recent generation. Yet behind kitchen doors, smoking has long been a hallmark of the food service industry.
Next time you catch Top Chef or Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, go ahead and count how many of the contestants smoke, or the scenes in which Tony is found holding a cig off-camera. In fact, in a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, almost 45% of food-service workers reported smoking cigarettes in the past month, vs. 28% of all U.S. full-time employees. This despite the obvious fact that a waiter reeking of smokes isn’t exactly good for business, and also despite another bit of smoking science.
In 2009, a study published in the medical journal BMC Ear, Nose and Throat Disorders confirmed what most people already knew: Smoking leads to decreased taste sensitivity. It “can affect the shape of taste buds and also affect vascularization, or the formation of blood vessels.” This, if you’re preparing food, isn’t an advantage. Hot-tempered telechef Gordon Ramsay has repeatedly slammed smoking in the food service industry. He once told the Television Critics Association: “The biggest issue with chefs today is smoking. The first thing I teach a chef is how to taste. If you don’t understand how it tastes, you shouldn’t be cooking it.”
Smoking may be, as Ramsay noted, the biggest issue facing chefs today, but they sure don’t like to talk about it. Several chefs reputed to be smokers were contacted for this article, yet all of them—many of whom have cultivated reputations in the dining community for being outspoken—were mysteriously and unusually unavailable for comment. In one case, a chef so well known for being a smoker that his publicist recommended I speak with him had—apparently overnight—no history of ever having been a smoker. Fair enough: Who wants to be quoted in a story defending their palate despite being a smoker? Even Bourdain declined through a publicist to comment for this article. These are the people who work in a business dedicated to satisfying others, even if it’s a business that, as those recent statistics demonstrated, tends to feed a preventable and costly problem in American health today. Yes, even those people wouldn’t talk about smoking.
Maybe it’s better that way. Aside from profiting the cigarette manufacturers (luring their customers into addiction and then killing them, for a spectacular bottom line), smoking loses out to basically every other indulgence in a cost-benefit analysis—from heroin (a better high and less lung damage) to Peter Luger (at least you get protein). But that’s precisely what makes the final indulgence sacred. It is unquestionably, unassailably, just plain bad.
In late February, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a ban on smoking in New York City parks and other outdoor public places. Smokers’ opportunities for harming others are ever-diminishing—and shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Yet smokers will continue to light up outside restaurants after a long, wonderful meal, and they’ll continue to be judged. That’s fine. They know what they’re doing, and exactly how indefensible it is.
But is it respectable? Well, to enjoy such a patently, objectively gross act of indulgence consciously and publicly takes a certain stripe of moxie. You might even call it a brazen and brave autonomy: Smokers are choosing to simultaneously please and destroy themselves. They know what they’re doing is wrong. They have no excuse, no defense, far less reason for lighting up than you ever, ever will have for ordering the steak. Or so nonsmokers would argue. These people, they’d say, lack restraint—something the nonsmokers do have, at least in this respect.
But there might be an indulgence in America more dangerous and prevalent even than smoking. It’s that one where you convince yourself that what you’re doing—whatever it is—isn’t wrong. At least the dirty, indulgent after-dinner smoker has no place to hide.
Foster Kamer is a senior editor at The New York Observer. His work has also appeared in Esquire and The Village Voice and on Gawker.com, BlackBook, The Awl, Rolling Stone.com and BBC Two’s The Culture Show. He’s currently down to five a day.