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Is Smoking in Public on Its Last Gasps? : Tempers Flare as Anti-Cigarette Forces Wage an All-Out War

April 18, 1987|CURT SUPLEE | Washington Post

You glide into that reception like you're docking the QE2. Pause a moment to peruse the murmuring throng. Your hand slips to the breast pocket . . . but wait. Can it be? Nobody's smoking? Oh, but there's. . . . No, hell, it's a candy dish. You notice a couple of heads swiveling anxiously. Nobody wants to be first. You reach breastward again, but it's no good. You're a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen. This is nothing to be ashamed of. And yet you can't bring yourself to light that cigarette.

And pretty soon there you are in your best suit, skulking between the fire exit and a dumpster full of fish parts, having your sullen smoke and wondering when the fun went out of it. Wondering if you're really seeing the last gasp for the habit that's had America by the throat for 500 years--ever since a puzzled Chris Columbus, on Nov. 6, 1492, took note in his journal of "women and men, with a firebrand in the hand, and herbs to drink the smoke thereof, as they are accustomed."

'Victimless' Crime

And so we were for centuries, what with four out of five doctors concurring and not a cough in a carload. Even the cancer reports--scary, sure, but what the heck, it wouldn't be you and besides, wasn't it a sort of victimless crime?

But then came the mid-'70s, the liberation movement boom, and people you'd never heard of seemed to have rights you'd never imagined. "Back as early as '79," says a former three-pack-a-day man, "I'd begun to feel myself to be part of a tiny, embattled minority. Indeed, what with gay rights and women's lib in the mainstream, smokers had become the last social group which it was acceptable to despise."

Overnight, it seemed, the nation developed an epidemic palsy of subnasal hand-waggling; smoker-baiting became a nasty cocktail party amusement; gust-engulfed restaurant patrons, coughing ostentatiously, pounced with incendiary relish on hapless tobacconites five tables away. Monstrously ironic "Thank You for Not Smoking" signs became ubiquitous as Kliban kitties. Puffers retreated into a war zone mentality, their social lives the first casualties.

First Thing Noticed

"Smoking!" growls a 32-year-old Alexandria, Va., woman, an executive at a national association and a hearty smoker. "It's the first thing men notice. I could look like Cybill Shepherd or a German shepherd--it doesn't matter at all!

"I kind of view myself as an easygoing person. But I still get ticked off when I go into somebody's house and don't see ashtrays. So you ask, and they make a big production of searching all over the place, rattling the cabinets. And finally they hand you the lid to some old jar, and say, 'Here--I guess you can use this.' "

Not that she's even safe at home. "I was having a dinner party one night, eight, 10 people, and I light up a cigarette. This young woman next to me, somebody's date, she says, 'Excuse me, but smoke bothers me.'

"I said, 'Well, excuse me, but this is my own house!' Can you believe it?"

In the past three months, the climate of opinion has grown even more hazardous to smokers' mental health--starting with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's December pronouncement about the dangers of secondhand or "sidestream" smoke on nonsmokers.

Scarcely had the first wheeze of shock subsided when Chicago-based USG Acoustical Products told its 2,000 employees that where there's smoke, you're fired: All workers would have to quit smoking (at the office and at home) and would be given pulmonary-function tests to ensure compliance. Then in February new restrictive regulations went into effect for 890,000 federal workers in 6,800 buildings owned or leased nationwide by the General Services Administration. A few days later, talk show host Larry King--who smoked slightly more than Gary, Ind.--had a heart attack at 53.

Then on March 9, Cambridge, Mass., joined a growing list of cities (prominently including Beverly Hills, Calif., and Aspen, Colo.) that have banned smoking in most public places.

And mass consciousness is due to ratchet up another notch on May 7, when New York State's new regulations go into effect, severely restricting smoking in public places and requiring employers to provide a smoke-free environment for workers requesting it.

(Actually, even the most Draconian of the new ordinances seem outright timid compared with 17th-Century New England's. In 1646, the General Court of Massachusetts passed a law forbidding settlers to smoke unless they were on a journey of five miles or more from any town, which makes walking a mile for a Camel look positively pedestrian. And the following year, a Connecticut statute limited tobacco use to once a day in the smoker's home--"and then not in company with any other.")

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