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Up in Smoke

I know I should kick the habit but ...

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We stand outside office buildings, grocery stores, airports, restaurants and bars. We fiddle with our cell phones or pretend to be fascinated by a stray hair on our jackets, anything to avoid looking up and seeing that look of disdain in the eyes of passersby. We excuse ourselves in the middle of movies, plays, concerts and meetings and make our way to makeshift holding areas to stand in the rain, snow, wind or heat with others of our kind. We chew breath mints and gum, and spray ourselves with fabric freshener, perfume or cologne, hoping by the time we get back to our chairs, the acrid smell we wear like a hair shirt will have dissipated. We try to ignore rolling eyes and wrinkled noses as we squeeze past you to get back to our seats, whispering "I'm sorry" not because we've stepped on your toes or bumped into your knees, but because we stink. We are shunned, shamed and ashamed.

We are smokers.

I started smoking about two decades after the surgeon general issued a warning that the nicotine and tar in cigarettes was linked to lung cancer and Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 that required every pack of cigarettes to carry a warning label on its side: "Cigarettes may be hazardous to your health."

My friends and I knew smoking could cause cancer and getting caught smoking was a ticketable offense. We chose to take the risk. We were tempestuous teens, and we honestly thought smoking made us look cool. Long before we turned 18, we sat in diners, cups of coffee turned white with creamer and sticky with spoonfuls of sugar before us, punctuating our stories by blowing out short puffs of smoke or taking long, dramatic drags. By the time I was legally old enough to smoke, I was already addicted. And for almost 30 years, I have been trying to quit. I think, no, I know, that if I don't do it soon, it will no longer be my choice.

I'm so anxious just thinking about all of this, I have to step outside for a moment.

Quitter!

Nineteen years ago last month, I met my husband at Boise State. We were both taking physical anthropology at night and became friendly during our smoke breaks. A year or so later, we were living together and had blended our lives in just about every aspect including smoking the same brand of cigarettes. Arguments sometimes centered on who had smoked a butt left on the edge of an ashtray for later or whose turn it was to go buy a new pack. For 10 years, we smoked in the tiny North End house we shared. When we decided to move to a larger place, we were shocked when the landlord said he was hesitant to give us back our cleaning deposit; it took him and a couple of helpers hours to scour the brown, greasy stains off the walls inside. When we moved, we decided not to smoke in our new home. In the cold, darkness of winter and the suffocating heat of summer, we'd step out on our deck with coffee, after a meal, before going to bed and light up.

Last fall, my husband said he was tired of feeling tired, slapped on a patch and, during the course of a few weeks, quit smoking. My rationale for not joining him was it didn't make sense for us to both be unbearable, miserable assholes. One was enough. The truth, however, was I didn't really want to. It's been a part of who I am for so long, I'm not really sure how to let it go or, as crazy as it sounds, if I want to. And now, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, I'm still out on the deck, while he sits inside fighting an urge that may be with him for the rest of his life. The chances of him relapsing are much greater if I continue to smoke. But I'm not looking forward to being a miserable, unbearable asshole. I'm between a smoldering rock and an irritable hard place.

I'm cranky just thinking about it. I have to step outside for a minute.

I Second That (but not on purpose)

The Web site for the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, lists nicotine between methamphetamine and PCP. It is an alphabetical list, but the implications are frightening including the information regarding secondhand smoke: It causes lung cancer in adults and greatly increases the risk of respiratory illnesses in children. It's the part about the secondhand smoke that's the most disturbing.

I have as strong of a survival instinct as the next guy. I wouldn't jump off of a building without a net, I wouldn't stand still if a chainsaw-wielding madman was charging at me, I wouldn't dive into a pool of sharks. And I understand, in a way, that's exactly what I do every time I light up. I climb down that building without a harness, I stand waiting for that psycho, I dip my toes in that pool. And when I smoke around people who've made the choice not to smoke, I'm pushing them toward that building's edge, that madman's weapon or those sharks' teeth. I'm taking their choice away or, worse yet, making one for them. And as the government steps up regulations, raises taxes and prices and pushes toward making smoking altogether illegal, it's taking my choice away from me.

I feel so bad about creating secondhand smoke, I need to step outside for a moment.

The Government is all Fired Up

During the last several months, a number of changes regarding tobacco have hit me right in the purse. In February, President Barack Obama signed the State Children's Health Insurance Program into law. SCHIP is a federally funded program in which states receive federal dollars to provide health insurance for children in low income families. The money will come from tobacco taxes.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 22 states had legislation pending to increase tobacco taxes as of the beginning of this month in order to "raise state revenue and achieve health public policy goals such as discouraging tobacco use." Before an April 1 tax increase, several tobacco manufacturers—maybe in a show of good faith—raised the retail price on a pack of cigarettes an average of 62 cents. The price increase came as a surprise to smokeshops. A sign with the following message was taped on their counters and windows:

"Due to the SCHIP Tax Increase, some manufacturers have decided to raise their prices effective immediately. Those changes are reflected in our retail prices. We expect other manufacturers to follow in the price increase. We apologize for the inconvenience. We did not foresee any increases until April 1, 2009."

On April 1, the tax on a pack of cigarettes, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco and snuff went up 158 percent. The tax on large cigars went up 722 percent, roll-your-own tobacco 2,159 percent and small cigars 2,653 percent.

An April 2 Associated Press story explained that raising taxes on tobacco wasn't the last step. The House passed legislation that gave the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate—but not ban—cigarettes and other tobacco products. The act would give the FDA control over "the contents of tobacco products, make their ingredients public, prohibit flavoring, require much larger warning labels and strictly control or prohibit marketing campaigns, especially those geared toward children."

Adrean Caspar, the director of government affairs for the American Heart Association and a community organizer of the Smoke Free Idaho coalition, confirmed what I suspected: The addiction bone might be connected to the wallet bone.

With the cost increase on tobacco, more smokers are reaching out to cessation support programs such as quitnet.com, the American Cancer Society's Quitline and Project Filter's nicotine replacement therapy program.

"Before the April 1 federal tax increase, we were averaging anywhere from 600 to 800 inquiries a month on the Quitline and Quitnet combined," she said.

In March alone, Quitnet received around 2,200 inquiries and Project Filter saw more than 1,400 people placing orders for nicotine replacements.

It's Not Right To Smoke, But Is It A Right?

I remember, back when Michael Jackson was still popular, people smoked in public places like grocery stores, airplanes and offices. I'd watch a clerk, a big push broom in front of him, swooshing under shelves, hundreds of cigarette butts in long piles before him. I remember my parents' wallets speckled with ash from balancing a cigarette in their lips as they reached in for cash and coupons. As an adult, I remember sitting in the back of a plane in the smoking section, sharing a bottle of champagne and a pack of cigarettes with a friend. At the first professional job I had when I moved to Southern California, I could smoke at my desk. I also remember crying babies, already fussy from the change in air pressure on their eardrums, store clerks standing back from the register to avoid being ashed on and people in my office asking if I could please open a window. I didn't mean to be rude; I just had the right to smoke in those places.

Imagine lighting up in checkout line at Albertsons, or in your office conference room in the middle of a meeting, or on a flight anywhere now. The idea is as ludicrous, as ridiculous and as embarrassing as it would be to walk into one of those places naked.

But a few smoker-friendly bastions still survive. At least in the Treasure Valley, smokers can still feed their habits—and not feel like they have their pants down—in bars. But legislation to ban smoking in public places is beginning to get teeth. A vote to ban smoking in public in the city of Eagle was postponed. By this time next year, the entire campus of Boise State will be smoke-free (the implications if that had been the case nearly 20 years ago when the cute guy in my anthropology class screwed up the nerve to ask me out during a smoke break are way too Twilight Zone). Some bar owners are jumping the gun and prohibiting smoking in their establishments now, and some are holding fast to a "don't tell me what I can and can't do" attitude.

I'm so conflicted about whether I think it's my right to smoke, I have to step outside for a moment.

To Smoke or Not to Smoke ... That's not really the question

Allen Ireland owns two bars in downtown Boise: Neurolux on 11th Street and Pengilly's on Main Street. As soon as we were legally old enough to drink, Pengilly's was for us what the coffeeshops had been in high school. We'd sit in the dark bar, squeezed into one of the high-backed wooden booths, drinking martinis straight up or Manhattans, smoking like crazy and talking like we had the problems of the world on our shoulders and the solutions to them all. Pengilly's is still a grownup bar, where professionals gather to toss back cocktails, chat and, until about two years ago, struggle to see the person across from them through the smoke. Pengilly's is now a non-smoking establishment. In an e-mail to BW, Ireland said that it wasn't an easy switch initially, but it's one that has paid off.

"Originally, I was hesitant because of the negative effects it would have on the business," Ireland wrote. "Now, many people actually prefer going down to Pengilly's because it is 'the' non-smoking bar. It has worked for us because of our persistence in making it work." He explained that the first few months were rough because customer reaction to the policy change was very strong. People started petitions, threatened to boycott the bar and were, in general, outraged. "But slowly their outrage turned into indifference and then to preference," he wrote. "Business has increased steadily since the no-smoking policy went into effect."

When Tyson Twilegar took over as owner of The Bouquet on Main Street, he shut it down for several months in part to remodel, and in part to clean up. When he reopened the doors, smoking inside was banned.

"The main reason I made it non-smoking is because of my daughter. I knew she might be in there with me sometimes during the day, and I didn't want her around that." Twilegar said comments on the new policy have been about 50 to 1 in support of it. "So many smokers tell me they prefer it ... and I think clean air is better."

He does, however, believe that it's his decision to make, not the government's.

"I'm glad it was my idea," Twilegar said. Even though he prefers the non-smoking environment, if The Bouquet was still a smoking bar and the city tried to pass a ban, he wouldn't acquiesce quietly. He would fight it.

The Crescent Bar has been in Jody Morrison's family for 49 years, and smoking has always been permitted inside. When Jody and her husband Butch were working on plans for their new location, now on Franklin Road near Curtis Road, a few years ago, Butch said it took 37 drawings before he and Jody were happy with the plans. Butch said the bids on the new building came in at about $1.7 million, higher than what they expected. When they looked for places to cut, a subcontractor informed them they could save $90,000 right off the top if they didn't put in the heating and cooling system they were looking at, one that exchanges 100 percent of the air inside every 15 minutes. They said no.

"Our electric and gas bill is about $5,000 a month," Butch said. "We don't think the air inside here is unhealthy. It's often worse outside."

What it ultimately comes down to for the Morrisons is a matter of personal choice. They don't want someone telling them what they can do in their bar any more than they believe they or anyone else should tell people they can or can't smoke. A few months back, they circulated a petition in their bar that stated bar owners should be allowed, without penalty or fee, to maintain the status quo and allow smoking if they should so choose.

"We have about 1,000 signatures," Butch, an ex-smoker himself, said. "And many of those were from people who said, 'I don't smoke, but I don't want the government telling other people where they can or can't."

I frequent bars in which smoking is permitted, including The Crescent, and bars in which it's prohibited such as Pengilly's and The Bouquet. I enjoy the ability to sit at a table at Neurolux and smoke with impunity. At the risk of invoking the ire of smokers who feel their rights are being challenged, I'm also quite appreciative of The Crescent's concerted—and expensive—efforts to dissipate the smoke in the bar, and I actually like standing outside Pengilly's or The Bouquet to light up. I usually see someone I know and even if I don't, there's a sense of camaraderie among those of us out there smoking.

As a matter of fact, I'm stepping outside right now.

Time To Make A Different Choice?

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and my uncles as they gathered around my grandparents' dining room table playing cards and marbles through a thick oily, gray haze. Smoking back then was like getting a tattoo back then: it meant you were tough and maybe a little dangerous (or in the military).

My grandparents spent the last years of their lives suffering from smoking-related complications, oxygen tanks their constant companions. My parents have fought an addiction to tobacco as long as I have been alive. My siblings, my spouse, my in-laws and even my children fight it as well. I have one family member who's incensed when a new tobacco law or tax goes into effect, her right to smoke infringed yet again. I have a friend who doesn't smoke but who feels exactly the same way.

I don't know if smoking is a right or a choice. I do know that it's an addiction and one in which those of us afflicted by it are often treated like social pariahs. We get the same looks heroin junkies or alcoholics get—a mix of pity and disdain—the implication that we merely lack the willpower to quit. But unlike other addicts, we don't get telethons, rehab or interventionists. Medications, patches and programs assist in some of the physical withdrawal, but the mental and emotional side effects of quitting are heinous.

Like the bar owners I spoke to, I want the choice to be mine. If I wait too long, either the government is going to take that choice from me or health problems will, so I guess I'll have to make a decision soon.

I have to step outside and think about that. Maybe I'll leave my smokes inside.

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