Smoke rings floated up like snowflakes in reverse as three college girlfriends partied on the front porch that winter night. Kellie Wright was the only one without a cigarette.
You want one?
Oh. Okay. She took a drag on the Virginia Slims Light they offered.
"It was gross," Wright recalled of that first smoke eight years ago. "You can't describe the taste."
That little experiment on the porch gradually turned into a pack-a-day habit. It was part of her courtship with her husband, also a smoker. It was a way to cope when three hurricanes in 2004 left the Winter Haven newlyweds with no home and their business belly-up.
By the time the pregnancy test came up positive three years ago, Wright was too hooked to quit, though she did cut back to no more than 10 a day.
"It was my stress reliever, a way to take a five-minute break," she said. "It was my way to say I need a timeout."
She'd hide at the far end of parking lots to avoid the disapproving stares. When strangers did see and scold her, the reaction would be to light up. "I shouldn't, but I'm an addict," she thought. "I'm an adult. Leave me alone."
• • •
Wright, who now lives in New Port Richey, was among the nearly 8 percent of Florida women who smoked during pregnancy in 2005.
Health Department officials get the numbers from obstetricians whose patients admit they smoke. So they figure the actual numbers are probably higher.
In Pasco County, twice the number of women light up while pregnant. In 2005, it was 16 percent. That number came down to 15.6 percent in 2006, while the state rate also came down slightly.
The highest rates in 2006 were in Dixie County, where about 32 percent smoked. Miami-Dade reported the lowest, with slightly less than 1 percent. In the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough had the lowest rate, with 6.3 percent, while 10 percent of Pinellas moms-to-be smoked.
In Hernando, the percentage was 14.3.
While Pasco's percentage has declined each year from a high of 23.8 percent in 1997, health officials aren't satisfied.
"That's still too high," said John Tschirhart, executive director of Pasco's Healthy Start Coalition. Of course, he would love a 0 in the number column, but he's realistic: 10 percent is a good goal.
"Even 14 or 15 percent would have a big impact," he said. "We bite off a little at a time."
The state agency gets the names of the expectant moms who smoke from their doctors. They then contact them and offer to help them quit. They can't force anyone to stop, but they do provide free services such as smoking-cessation programs, information about the state's quit line and literature to show them how their smoking affects their baby.
They also provide women with a journal so they can set a quit date, record their progress and vent when they feel a nicotine craving. Also included is a pen that doubles as a nail file for quitters to occupy their hands.
Women who have already given birth may also qualify for free nicotine patches.
The reasons behind Pasco's high smoking rate leave Tschirhart and his staff scratching their heads. They have ideas: low incomes, the stress of an unplanned pregnancy, women whose own parents smoked.
"They think, 'Well, my mom smoked with me and I'm okay,' " he said. "What they don't realize is they were lucky."
He would like to do a study to uncover the reasons why more Pasco moms smoke so they could zero in on the causes.
"If we could get a grant, maybe we could work with students at USF," he said. Until then, "education is the key."
• • •
Kellie Wright is one of Healthy Start's success stories. The 32-year-old mother of two and her husband both quit with help from the patch shortly after their youngest child, now 5 months old, was born.
Before quitting, she would smoke outside, then brush her teeth and change her clothes to avoid exposing her firstborn, Olivia, to secondhand smoke. She even did this at the hospital with her second child, Blake.
She wanted a smoke-free home. Her husband, Earth, had been waking up each day with a cough. They had been talking about quitting for years but never had followed through.
Two weeks after coming home with Blake, a Healthy Start caseworker called and mentioned a smoking-cessation program.
"You have a what?" Wright said.
The worker promised to come the next month.
"How about you come by sooner?" Wright asked. "We're ready to quit now."
They got the patches on Jan. 10. They put them on the next day. Earth used his for a week and gave up smoking. Kellie kept hers for three weeks and then used it periodically whenever she got a bad craving.
She's smoke-free now, though the stay-at-home mom admits to occasional lapses when "both kids are going off at the same time."
"I still want to smoke," she said. "I still crave them. Even seeing someone smoking on TV makes me want to smoke."
For Wright, "the very act of doing it" makes it attractive.
"It's the habit of hand to mouth," she said.
To distract herself, she brushes her teeth. She also takes a walk around the house or takes garbage to the curb. She also tries to keep her hands busy by cooking. Weight gain was no problem for Wright or her husband. She said they eat the same amounts as before they quit, and the kids keep her active.
"I think it's all in what your new activity is," she said.
When she sees a pregnant woman smoking, she feels disgusted but resists the urge to butt in because its not her place.
"I did it," she said sheepishly.
She feels guilty about her behavior but tries not to focus on what she can't change.
Instead, she talks about the benefits. She has more time to devote to other things. She doesn't have to rush through tasks just so she can have a cigarette.
Olivia, not quite 2, is already hearing lectures on smoking. Mom tells her it stinks, it's icky.
As for other moms, Wright offers this advice: Do your best to quit, but if slip up, don't worry. Just get back up and try again.
"Quitting is hard."
Lisa Buie can be reached
or (813) 909-4604.