WASHINGTON — It fell to President Barack Obama to confirm the gossip that his aides had spent weeks trying to snuff out: He still sneaks an occasional cigarette.
"There are times where I mess up," Obama said at a White House news conference on Tuesday.
But, the president hastened to add, he never smokes in front of his young daughters and not on a daily basis. Oh, and he's "95 percent cured."
It was the first public acknowledgment from the president that he still hasn't completely kicked the habit. In the past, he had alluded to his three-decades-old habit without giving direct answers.
One day after signing the nation's toughest anti-tobacco legislation into law, Obama was asked again Tuesday about his smoking habit and came clean.
"Look, I've said before that as a former smoker I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes," Obama said. "Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No."
Obama has said he used to average about five cigarettes a day, although stress sometimes drove him to reach for a lighter more often. He promised his wife he'd quit if she agreed that he should run for president.
"I hate it," Michelle Obama told CBS' "60 Minutes" early in the presidential campaign. "That's why he doesn't do it anymore, I'm proud to say. I outed him — I'm the one who outed him on the smoking. That was one of my prerequisites for, you know, entering this race is that, you know, he couldn't be a smoking president."
Now in the White House, Obama is finding that his nicotine intake is part of the public debate — much to the president's annoyance.
When asked Tuesday about the anti-smoking measure and his own habits, Obama scolded a reporter for thinking the question was "neat ... as opposed to it being relevant to my new law."
He said the legislation, which faced a veto threat under former President George W. Bush, was aimed at preventing young people from taking up the habit. Obama began smoking as a teenager and has been an on-again, off-again smoker ever since.
"First of all, the new law that was put in place is not about me," Obama said. "It's about the next generation of kids coming up."
Kids like his daughters, 10-year-old Malia and 8-year-old Sasha.
"I don't do it in front of my kids, I don't do it in front of my family," Obama said.
Obama refused to say how many cigarettes he smokes, where he sneaks them or how often he lights up now that he's in the White House. Only a day earlier, his top aides had refused to answer direct questions about the president's smoking.
"I don't, honestly, see the need to get a whole lot more specific than the fact that it's a continuing struggle," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "He struggles with it every day."
During the presidential campaign, aides packed nicotine gum in their pockets to help Obama control his urges. Obama occasionally bummed cigarettes from aides, while also making sure to emphasize his efforts to stop for good and his progress toward quitting.