It seems the City of Marion, Iowa, is working out the complications of a prohibition against smoking in its parks. As if that’s not enough, they want to extend the law to restrict the use of any and all nicotine delivery systems. They say that will include electronic cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and maybe even the nicotine gum used to help people quit. A few years ago, I might have cheered this news, but today it seems like just one more sign of our human need to exercise power by oppressing anybody we have an advantage over. Human beings, by their nature, seem unable to live and let live. It’s too bad.
I’m your stereotypical ex-smoker in many ways. I started smoking when I was about sixteen, experimented with just about anything that would burn and produce nicotine. That, at one time or another, included cigarettes, cigars, pipes… whatever. After having children, I began to come to my senses and, over a five year period, did manage to quit smoking altogether. The last cigarette was sucked down (half a lifetime ago) on July 29, 1976. Time of day: late afternoon. Location: Commons Ballroom, University of Northern Iowa. It was an occasion.
For a long time, I continued to struggle with the temptation to smoke. After all, I’d been in the process of quitting for a full five years. There was no reason to think the lure of nicotine would disappear quickly. The only thing that made the July 29th last cigarette different from all the other last cigarettes was the fact that, from that point on, I did successfully manage to resist, one at a time, all future opportunities to smoke.
Years later, the lure would still be there every time I’d sit at a table with friends who had a cigarette with their beer. I knew that, with my addictive personality, one cigarette would be the end of my life as a nonsmoker. The closest I ever came to falling back into the trap was while in nursing school, 2000-2001. The average age of my fellow students seemed to be about twenty, and they all seemed to be smokers. During a break between classes, everybody would race for the doors and a cigarette break. If I wanted to socialize at all, it had to include second hand smoke. But I did survive, and eventually became the stereotypical ex-smoker, the bore we all love to hate.
What I really hate is putting myself in the position of defending smokers. They can make life miserable. By this time, cigarette smoke takes my breath away and leaves me struggling for oxygen. Entering a smoker’s car gags me, and the smell of cigarette smoke in someone’s hair repels me. I have no idea how Shar put up with all those years of my smoking in the house. I suppose at least part of the reason was the fact that back then the majority of Americans smoked. Everybody was used to the constant presence of cigarette smoke. Not smoking made you the outsider.
No longer. The tables have turned. Today, the smokers are the oddballs. Restaurants prohibit smoking, bars prohibit smoking, public buildings prohibit smoking, You can’t smoke on the campus of a public university; you can’t smoke on the grounds of hospitals, schools, county or state buildings. If people dare light up on a public street, haters will wither them with poisonous stares. Smokers have become pariahs, but I think they deserve a little sympathy. A little compassion.
The ones I know personally would mostly rather be nonsmokers. They started like everybody else. They were stupid high school or college students, and they watched all the cool people doing it. They were human and fell into the trap. Anybody imprisoned in a habit that costs them at least five dollars a day needs pity, not derision. For $150.00 a month you could take up all sorts of more enjoyable hobbies.
In my nursing duties, I’m required to ask every patient if he or she uses tobacco. Almost invariably, smoking patients will answer with embarrassment, and they’ll add something like, “But I’m trying to quit. I know it’s bad.” Smoking is no longer the thing to do, and many, many smokers, once they get past the age of nineteen, are at least a little embarrassed about it. The last thing the poor smoker needs is one more place, the public park, where she is not welcome. She’s more to be pitied than reviled. Maybe, just maybe, if we started viewing smokers as objects of pity, and let them smoke off in the corner, the whole thing might look a lot less cool to young people attracted by anything that looks a little bit rebellious.