When Smokers Ruled

I hear lots of you, especially my younger friends, express sympathy for smokers. I know you think that I am unduly harsh on them and that society as a whole is excessively severe toward smokers. But frankly you didn’t live through the smoky days when smokers ruled the world. If you had you might not feel we are harsh enough. Your misplaced concern is like expressing sympathy for those poor overregulated coal-fired plants now that the air is finally breathable – breathable only because they were heavily regulated in the first place.

smoker wearing crownTry to imagine the world back when smokers were completely unregulated. I grew up in the 60’s and in those days smokers had absolute uncontested sovereignty. They smoked wherever and whenever they wished and no one had any right to complain. You cannot appreciate how hellish they made the world. Thankfully you don’t have to live in it anymore. Movies glamorize it with dreamily wafting artificial smoke. Even supposedly accurate period pieces like “Good Night and Good Luck” totally sanitize the filth that was the 60’s. In reality, ashes stained every surface. Every table was cluttered with disgusting overflowing ash trays. The surface of every table and chair was riddled with burn marks and littered with butts. The air in any indoor space was a toxic cloud of fumes. Windows were literally browned-out with thick layers of tar. It was a time distinguished by disgustingly yellow teeth and smoke-reeked clothes and upholstery. You don’t see, smell, and feel those things in the movies. The movies don’t make your eyes sting and your throat cough.

smoking while eatingBack then, dinner at restaurants was like eating out of an ashtray. Adults smoked right up until their first bite, immediately after their last bite, and indeed some took a drag between each bite. They would then drop their butts into water glasses or into their leftover mashed potatoes even while others will still eating.

The inside of cars was a hellish torment as well. With all the windows closed in those cold Wisconsin winters, all the adults would smoke nonstop. Once I asked my mom to let me open a window. She refused. When I pleaded with her to stop smoking she answered, “I’m the one smoking, why should it bother you?” So I then flipped the radio switch to full volume. “Turn that off,” she shouted. I mimicked “I’m the one listening, why should it bother you?” My logic was lost on her and I was answered only by a solid smack across the face.

Even the great outdoors provided little respite from the tyranny of smokers. Mounds of ashes lined every curb. Every grassy park lawn was covered with butts, matches, and packaging. When us kids played on the beach we would shovel up handfuls of butts infesting the sand. In the winter the pristine snow was defiled with ashes, butts, and packaging everywhere you looked.

This is only a pale portrayal of everyday existence when smokers ruled the world. Frankly you cannot imagine it any more that I can really imagine the pollution in London during the height of the industrial revolution. So don’t feel sorry for smokers. Don’t give them any of that power back. If you let up, they will return life to the hellscape it was back when they had their way.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking it would not be that bad again. Smokers have not changed. Smokers today are not more enlightened and considerate than smokers back in the 60’s. This is obvious when you still see them blithely toss their cigarette butts on the ground anywhere they happen to be when done with them. They don’t care that you have to walk through them or that your kids play in them. They have not changed. They have no social conscience when it comes to their addiction.

Smokers in fact have turned the new outdoors into the old indoors. In NYC at least, we nonsmokers have to hold our breaths when we go outside and hurry past the gauntlet of smokers. We have to grimace in disgust when they walk ahead of us billowing out smoke like a coal locomotive. We used to escape outside to get a few gulps of fresh air. Now we have to rush inside to escape the smoke.

The only reason smokers still do these things is because we let them. If we let them smoke in restaurants again, they’ll once again smoke between bites and toss their butts into your water glass.

I went on a bus trip in Brazil not long ago. The tour guides laid down the law on the first day. “We will not allow you to stink up the bus and we will not clean up your disgusting soggy butts from the snow slush on the bus floor. Further we will kick you off the bus if you toss your butts all over Brazil.” The tour guides handed out twist-top vials and instructed smokers to only smoke off the bus and to keep their butts in the vial until they could dispose of them properly. The smokers were at first irate at this restriction of their right to litter at will, but did quickly adopt the practices and the trip was a joy for all, including the smokers themselves. Most importantly we were not embarrassed by those smokers flicking their butts our across every scenic place of beauty we visited.

Here’s my advice informed by history. Don’t give an inch to smokers lest they take a mile. Start a movement to make smokers everywhere adopt the eco-friendly tour policy and put their butts into a container until they can be disposed of properly. Even better, force cigarette manufacturers to provide a clever package that makes it easy for smokers to deposit their butts right back into the pack! Smokers and their corporate suppliers must be forced to do this through laws and/or social pressure. They will not do it simply because it is the socially responsible thing to do.

One last addition. At first I was annoyed by the emergence of e-cigarettes because they only encourage more smoking. But I now appreciate that they do have one huge unanticipated benefit. They eliminate a tremendous number of butts being strewn all across our shared spaces. For that reason alone, I think they’re a really, really good thing. If they would just lose the smoke effects and that silly LED on the end, I’d have little reason to complain about smokers except for their impact on my insurance rates!

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