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All Together Now: Let’s Stop Smoking

The first meeting of the Non-Smokers Vacation Club will please come to order.

All right. Just as soon as everyone finishes lighting up.

The veteran smokers gathered in this north Spokane home are serious about quitting. They just need a little more time to get emotionally prepared.

Tracey Swank, who dreamed up this inventive group-effort approach to quitting smoking, says Sept. 1 will be the magic day when the group starts kicking its nasty habit. The Labor Day weekend, she reasons, is particularly appropriate for the laborious task they face.

On that day, those in the club will cease smoking and start pooling some of the money they would normally waste on demon weed: $2.75 a day.

At the end of one year, the loot will be split among the nicotine-free. If everybody makes it, the smoke-free winners will use the club bank account to take off on a dream vacation to some sunny land.

I’ll keep an eye on their progress during the year and give you updates. OK. Any questions?

“Yeah,” says Daren Garber, 36, setting fire to a Winston. “I want to know who’s gonna come to my house every morning and take the handcuffs off me.”

Garber takes a deep drag and shakes his head. “I gotta tell you,” he adds, wincing. “I haven’t had a drop of alcohol in five years, but I’m really terrified of trying to quit smoking.”

It’s difficult for a non-cigarette smoker like me to appreciate the power cancer sticks have over their victims. Tracey, 30, her husband, Dan, 29, and their friends are enslaved by the little paper tubes that come 20 to a pack.

“You run out of cigarettes and you’re in a panic,” says Tracey. “First you check the ash trays in your car, then the garbage cans. It’s kind of disgusting when you think about it.”

Garber, an auto mechanic, says it’s worse than that. “I do welding so sometimes I burn my eyes,” he says.

“At night I’ll lie there in pain, but I won’t go to the store to buy Visine. But the second I’m out of cigarettes, man, I’m gone.”

All the Non-Smokers Vacation Club members tell similar stories.

They started smoking young, influenced by older friends who convinced them it was cool.

As adults, they realize they are addicted. They all know relatives and friends who have died or are sick from smoking-related diseases. They don’t want their kids to follow their example.

Tracey tried her first cigarette at 10. She inhaled the first time at 12. “I threw up all over my friend Gina Carlevato’s carpet,” she says. “Her mom thought I had the flu.”

She was hooked by her freshman year in high school. A boyfriend doled cigarettes out to her like rewards.

“It kind of scared me the other day to realize I’d been smoking over half my life,” says Dan, 29, an insurance broker.

He was 14 when his uncle’s girlfriend handed him a smoke. Two weeks later he was inhaling and on his way.

The Swanks realized they were spending nearly $60 a week on cigarettes. They decided to call her friends and form a club that offers real cash incentives to quit.

Right now, six have signed on. Two die-hard smokers are thinking it over. Tracey expects to recruit several more by Sept. 1.

Are there any brave takers out there?

Those who join can use any method to stop smoking. But let the puffers beware, there’s a 5-buck-a-cigarette penalty every time you cheat.

Failing members get 30 days to try again during the first six months. But get this: Anyone who drops out permanently must still pay the $19.25 weekly dues.

“This requires honesty and integrity,” says Dan.

It requires more than that. Cigarettes are the devil. These people need an exorcist.

“I really can’t envision not smoking,” adds Dan a moment later as he torches another Marlboro. “It seems absolutely unnatural.”

, DataTimes