SAN LUIS OBISPO — Four years ago, this pretty town along the Central Coast of California made a sort of history. It became the first municipality in the nation to go smokeless. Smoking was banned in the workplace, banned in restaurants, banned even in bars. The law's been well-accepted everywhere, except maybe the saloons for serious drinkers. At these bars, patrons usually can be found huddled together just outside the door, grumpily smoking a quick cigarette between cocktails.
"I have a saying," chuckles Jerry Reiss, who as a City Council member wrote the anti-smoking ordinance. "In San Luis Obispo you have to go inside to get some fresh air."
Actually, the town was only a tiny bit ahead of the times. Cities up and down California have followed with similar anti-smoking laws. Davis went the furthest, effectively banning cigarette smoking on sidewalks. And in what seemed a culmination of the movement, Gov. Pete Wilson last July signed a statewide ban on smoking in most workplaces.
Propelling this crusade is scientific research into the risks of secondhand smoke. It has changed the social dynamic: Putting a nail in your own coffin is one thing; putting a nail in mine is something else again. Also, cigarettes have been losing constituents. Smoking is less popular. The Marlboro Man mentality has ridden into the sunset. Only 1 in 5 Americans now smokes. The numbers continue to drop nationwide, but nowhere faster than in California.
Which takes us to the counterrevolution--Proposition 188 on your November ballot.
This is a proposition that declares itself to be an anti-smoking ordinance. The word \o7 tough \f7 runs throughout the ballot argument in favor of its passage. \o7 Tough and restrictive. Tough annual review. Tough, uniform statewide restrictions. \f7 Proposition 188, however, happens to have been conceived and financed by the Phillip Morris Co. The Phillip Morris Co. happens to make cigarettes. Rabid cynicism is not required to question the measure's sincerity.
"Do foxes," one opponent has written, "build fences around chickens?"
What Proposition 188 would do is this: It would kill local ordinances like the one in effect here. It would invalidate the new state anti-smoking legislation, replacing it with a more smoker-friendly California law. Restaurateurs could reopen smoking sections. Smokers would be accommodated at the workplace, with lounges and so forth. Bars would be havens again for smokers. And what about secondhand smoke? Well, tough.
That a tobacco company would fight to maintain a beachhead for its market does not surprise. More arresting is the fact that so many nonsmoking Californians would join the cause. Proposition 188 has led consistently in the polls. The latest had the measure up by six points. Many explanations for this have been advanced.
First off, there's money: Phillip Morris has contributed millions for the campaign, compared to the mere thousands raised by its opponent. Also, this is a tremendously noisy political season, with several other battles that, frankly, seem more important. In addition, the proposition is a clever piece of writing that, on first reading, creates the illusion of a crackdown.
And finally, there is the political mood. It seems the people are leery anymore of anything that smacks of government intrusion--even smoking laws. Nor do they cotton much to the constant nagging from scientific quarters, warning about everything from roast beef to suntans. This is a good time to make the case that, cough, cough, ciggies aren't such a danger after all.
Listen to George Wheaton. The 81-year-old bartender is an expert on smoking. He's done it since he was 10. "Acupuncture, hypnosis, tried everything to quit." Now he has just quit trying. "At my age," he says with a quick smile, "what the hell does it matter?"
He stands at the tavern door, taking fast, furtive drags like some kid behind a schoolyard backstop. His clientele beckons, but he needs a smoke, and so outside he must be. "A helluva note," he says. In a rapid-fire style that comes from squeezing conversation between drink calls, Wheaton tears one by one through anti-smoking arguments.
"Don't buy it one bit. My dad smoked all his life. Lived to be 94."
"Don't believe in it. There's worse. Follow one of those buses with your window down. You'll be dead before you reach Santa Barbara."
Fewer people smoking?
"Propaganda. They're smoking, all right. As much as ever."
And perhaps here old George makes his best point. For Californians to be buying this Phillip Morris campaign, the statistics must be wrong. There must be a load of people out there smoking. Something.