A freight train loaded with cigarettes, all lit, the smoke drifting heavenward in perfect Erte coils, runs full steam through my life’s main line. My parents smoked, as my husband likes to say, like it was their job. That is until my father died late last year from congestive heart failure. If his overtaxed ticker had not given out, it’s unlikely he would have survived the tumor in his lungs — just the size of the ping-pong balls that we batted under the water heater in the basement playroom next to his workbench while he made trivets for our mom, a full ashtray never far from his elbow.
One of my most vivid memories of my dad is from a photograph from a family vacation in southern Missouri. He’s sitting almost waist-deep in the water on the edge of a lake; he looks happy, yellow baseball cap on his head, white undershirt stencilling a farmer’s tan onto his skinny arms and, as always, a cigarette in his fingers.
I don’t smoke, but I understand it viscerally. I think the barbarians who want to excise images of smokers from movies ought to be sentenced to a life of draping faux “David” statues with Rudy Giuliani and John Ashcroft. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which passed new rules that could take kids away from caring and responsible foster parents if the adults light up, should spend a little compulsory time in a Texas Youth Commission facility. I would never trade my smoke-cured childhood for a smoke-free one, even if the most likely reason for me to contract lung cancer is that I was a teenage cigarette filter. I was loved, clothed, fed, and had the run of rural southern Minnesota. Happiness: priceless.
But when it comes to adult-on-adult behavior, the blush is off the rose. Secondhand smoke is a killer. Each year an estimated 3,400 non-smoking American grownups die from lung cancer; another 22,700-69,600 from heart disease. The internationally renowned Mayo Clinic reports that secondhand smoke contains the known and suspected carcinogens formaldehyde, cadmium, benzene, and arsenic (that’s formaldehyde, the preservative no longer considered appropriate for fetal pigs that will be dissected by pimply sixth-graders, and arsenic, the “powdered sugar” used to poison the sweet twins in Flowers in the Attic). For these reasons and more, notes Mayo, in 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency graduated secondhand smoke to the “most dangerous category of cancer-causing agents.”
Yet, some of my smoker friends talk about smoking as if it’s a Founding-Fathers-given right, even using the phrase “undue burden” to describe the proposed statewide smoking ban in the Texas House and Senate. Preamble-plus diehards will tell you that the state can’t unduly burden something unless you have a constitutionally guaranteed right to do the damn thing. Vote, yes. Drive after drinking, no. Smoke … also no.
Here’s the nut on supporting/opposing the proposed ban (authored in the Senate by Houstonian Rodney D. Ellis; an identical version is in the House; at press time both were in committee):
• There are several studies by wonky types that say there is no overall loss of revenue and jobs in the restaurant and bar industry due to smoking bans.
• There are counter studies by groups called i.e., Smokers Club Inc., that dispute these claims.
• Free marketeers split the baby and argue that while in the big picture the gains (from non-smokers who go out in greater numbers but spend less) and losses (from smokers who start drinking at home) may balance each other out, but it doesn’t mean that bars don’t suffer on the street level. They recommend exceptions to comprehensive bans — for bars that use filtration systems, for instance.
One of the key assumptions of the latter group is that economic considerations must be balanced with the greater good. At first, I too thought that the “free” market could solve this problem: as the demand for smoke-free cocktail and live-music venues increases, so will the venues.
But then I remembered my days as a poor college student. I tended bar not because I’d concluded that the benefits outweighed the risks, as one recent survey of smoking bans blithely characterized bar employees’ rationale, but because the job paid the most and had the most flexible hours. What kind of society makes workers choose between a relatively lucrative, no-college-degree required job and longterm health? (Answer: One that made a steroidal paean to Sparta a blockbuster.) To put it in more Libertarian-friendly terms: your right to flick your lighter stops at my nose.
There are other tangible benefits to smoking bans, too. My husband, a social smoker who travels to New York on business, has to step outside to light up when he’s at his favorite pub. “So I smoked three cigarettes instead of nine tonight,” he reported on Monday. “I can’t really complain about that.”