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Smoke screen

Some people go to great lengths to hide their habit

The penultimate episode of ''Everybody Loves Raymond" outed one of the series' recurrent characters -- Pat MacDougall, played by actress Georgia Engel -- as a secret cigarette smoker. Family members were stunned, if not amused, to discover Pat had been puffing away for years, concealing her habit with the aid of breath mints, air freshener, and other coverups.

One viewer who found herself laughing on the outside while cringing on the inside was Mary, a South Shore bank employee. For Mary, Pat's dirty little secret was more than an uproarious sitcom subplot. It was an awkward slice of life.

Her life.

At home, Mary (like others interviewed for this article, she requested that her full name not be used) leans out her bathroom window, blowing smoke into the sky so her boyfriend won't smell it. When smoking in her car, she rolls down the windows, no matter how cold or rainy it is outside. On visits to her parents' house, she'll duck behind a backyard tree to grab a quick cigarette, praying she doesn't get caught.

Forty-five years old, not breaking any laws, and Mary acts like a teenager sneaking her first Camel behind the school gym.

Oh, what some people will apparently do for a date with Mr. Butts.

''I don't want to hear the grief, mostly from family and friends," Mary explains when asked why she's reluctant to light up in front of people who know her. ''They're very judgmental."

Mary is hardly alone in preferring to smoke in secrecy rather than run afoul of societal attitudes toward cigarette smoking, which are negative enough by now to drive Joe Camel into the witness protection program.

Health issues notwithstanding, 46 million Americans continue to smoke, however, openly or not. According to one study, 70 percent have a desire to quit, and nearly half make an attempt to, yet only 10 percent enjoy much success.

While no study has quantified how many are ''secret" smokers, the number may be higher than most suspect. Following the revelation that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, a former smoker, is being treated for lung cancer, New York magazine polled 100 smokers about how often they smoke, where they smoke, and other aspects of their habit. One-third confessed to hiding their smoking from parents, bosses, children, or spouses.

In at least one state, Georgia, teachers and other public employees risk losing their health insurance for a year if they're caught lying about their smoking habit.

''I understand the health part," says Donna, a receptionist for a Chelsea home-supplies company. ''It's feeling like a criminal that's disturbing."

Secret smoking isn't just sitcom fodder, either. No less a public figure than Laura Bush was pegged as a secret smoker (her press secretary would neither confirm nor deny press reports) as recently as last year, long after she supposedly gave up cigarettes in the early 1990s. According to an October 2002 Washington Post article, the first lady has been known to reach for a cigarette in times of stress, provided no photographers are there to catch her in the act.

The White House Weekly published a February 2004 article suggesting Bush was still struggling with the habit. According to the report, a White House waiter admitted scrambling to find the first lady a cigarette during a fund-raiser at the presidential residence.

And yet the Republic somehow still stands.

Donna can relate. She loved that ''Raymond" episode also, for much the same guilty-pleasure reason. Having tried to quit dozens of times, she can't quite seem to quit her Kools for keeps. Yet Donna never smokes around the office. She only does it on her lunch breaks when she's far from the workplace, where nobody she knows might catch her in the act.

''I feel like the office drug addict," Donna confesses. ''They all think it's nasty. They'd look down on me if they knew I smoked."

A few close friends share her secret habit, says Donna. Fortunately she's single and doesn't have a husband who's antismoking, as many of them do. Or she'd be bathing with Listerine and chain-chewing Altoids.

''How do you hide it completely?" she wonders. ''If you can't smoke in the car, do you pull over and light up? Come on. If you can hide something like that from your husband, you can hide anything, I guess."

Anecdotal evidence suggests not all closet smokers fit into one neat carton. Some resumed smoking recently, after going years without cigarettes, and seem unsure of what to do about their situation. The enjoyment they get from smoking is frequently undercut by guilt about compromising their health, they say, not to mention the health of their most intimate relationships.

''I won't buy [cigarettes], but every now and then I'll bum one from friends," says Lisa, who took up smoking (again) while traveling on company sales trips with colleagues who smoke. Her husband remains clueless about her tobacco jones -- or did until a couple of months ago, when she decided to quit again -- yet his ignorance seems to have worked to her advantage.

''I'd been fighting whether this was something temporary or permanent," Lisa says. ''If I acknowledged it to him, I was afraid it might become a full-time habit again. Now I just have one every once in a while."

Mark, an Orlando, Fla., dietitian, doesn't smoke at home or at work but still manages to go through 10 to 15 Marlboro Lights daily. Friends call him a closet smoker, he says, because he's so discreet about it they're amazed to see him smoke at all.

''I don't really hide it, but I certainly don't brag about it, either," Mark says. ''I have a daughter who knows I smoke and doesn't like it, though, so I don't do it around her. My intentions are to quit."

Still others say they've lied outright about their smoking and are prepared to do so again if it means avoiding an ugly or embarrassing confrontation.

Joan, a Boston-area college administrator, started smoking again recently after quitting a two-pack-a-day habit years ago. Her boyfriend, who's never seen her smoke, stopped by her apartment unexpectedly one day and smelled smoke. He asked suspiciously who'd been smoking.

''I had no one else to blame, so I told him I enjoyed one every once in a while," says Joan. ''It was totally untrue. Actually, I smoke about half a pack a day."

Then there was the couple's vacation weekend together, Joan says, when she didn't touch a cigarette for three days. As soon as her boyfriend dropped her off at home, however, she lit one up. ''I'm struggling with this," she admits.

What drives some smokers to cloak their habit in such secrecy?

One point on which most agree is that the social stigma around smoking makes it a hard habit to manage, and thus more tempting to disguise. Smoke-free office buildings, hotel rooms, bars, and restaurants have driven smokers into quasi-legal exile. Relatives and co-workers don't just frown at the habit, they recite scary statistics about secondhand smoke. Public-education campaigns and rising taxes on cigarettes have also helped make smoking both riskier and more costly than ever.

''You can drink socially and not be called an alcoholic," says Lisa. ''But if you smoke socially, you're a smoker. Period."

All smoking aside, how toxic might the behavior itself be?

While most smokers recognize that cigarettes are bad for them, says clinical psychologist Maryann Troiani, they may be less than truthful with themselves when it comes to measuring the harmful effects of secrecy.

''Psychologically, it's as bad as cheating on your spouse and hiding it," says Troiani, coauthor of ''Spontaneous Optimism: Proven Strategies for Health, Prosperity & Happiness." ''When you're not truthful, it's a big wedge in the relationship."

Whether it's having an extramarital affair or habitually visiting strip clubs or overeating in secret, it's ''all the same can of worms," according to Troiani. ''Some people view it as risk-taking behavior, as living their lives on the edge," she says. ''However, most feel uneasy and uncertain about keeping secrets."

Even Joan, when pressed, acknowledges that if she's forced to choose between smoking and her relationship, it would be a tough call. That's one reason her next vacation won't be with her boyfriend. Instead, Joan plans to meet a girlfriend in Europe, where smoking is a more accepted -- even cherished -- custom.

''When I get home," Joan says, ''we'll see what happens."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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