Antismoking Insanity

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:29

    I guess that name makes its aims and goals obvious enough. "Together," the coalition's website announces, "we can win smokefree workplace legislation, including smokefree offices, restaurants, bars, night clubs, bowling alleys, and jazz clubs."

    Bowling alleys and jazz clubs?

    Now, I try not to be an asshole smoker, myself. I don't smoke in strangers' homes unless they start first. I don't smoke in restaurants, even in those rare cases these days when I'm allowed to. But I'll tell you, I found myself at a bar in San Francisco last year. I had a beer in front of me, and an ashtray, but I wasn't allowed to smoke. Not if I didn't want to be busted for it. There was just something unnatural about it. It just wasn't right. Up until a few years ago, I couldn't have imagined something like that ever happening in New York, but now I'm not so sure.

    The Coalition for a Smoke-Free City was founded a decade ago, and is comprised of more than 100 organizations?including local hospitals, lung associations, heart associations and civil rights groups.

    Coalition spokesman Joe Cherner is the founder of SmokeFree Educational Services, one of the groups included. For the record, he has never smoked.

    "As a result of the settlement between the Attorney General and the tobacco cartel, New York City will now be getting $13 million a year that [the Dept. of Health] will be spending on tobacco control. The coalition will be advising the Dept. of Health on how to best spend the money."

    The first and most important thing they'll be using the money for, according to Cherner, is advertising. Or rather, counter-advertising?which should start cropping up around the city within the next several weeks. Before the ads start popping up, though, there's still the website, which features, among other things, a list of "Famous Dead Smokers"?including ages and final causes of death. Many aren't too surprising?like Sammy Davis Jr., Yul Brynner and John Huston, all of whom made antismoking ads before they died. The one thing that was a surprise was the number of celebrity smokers who died in their 70s and 80s. (Though at the very bottom of the page there is a disclaimer concerning that, which states, "Don't be fooled by the older-aged deaths. Some of these victims were sick for 10 or more years before finally dying.")

    Central to the site is an ongoing letter-writing campaign. Visitors are encouraged to send e-mails and faxes to a variety of local, state and national leaders, urging them to strengthen antismoking laws and to stop accepting money from the tobacco companies.

    "Right now our number-one goal is to strengthen the New York City smoke-free workplace laws," Cherner told me. "We feel very strongly that nobody should have to breathe something that causes cancer at the workplace. So our goal is to make all workplaces smoke-free."

    They're also trying to encourage magazines like Sports Illustrated and TV Guide to stop running cigarette ads, and pressuring politicians to pass legislation to increase the size of the warnings on tobacco products.

    Up to this point, there were no real surprises. With groups like this, you expect letter-writing campaigns. What you don't expect, however, is a collection of articles that encourage nonsmoking apartment dwellers to file lawsuits against their smoking neighbors.

    One article, which purports to suggest ways for nonsmokers to deal with a smoking neighbor, states quite bluntly, "Trail Blaze in Court." It also suggests turning all of your nonsmoking neighbors against the smoker in question. Another article hints that it would be easier to sue a neighbor than it would be to sue a multibillion-dollar corporation.

    I asked Mr. Cherner if he didn't think this sort of thing was setting a rather dangerous precedent. What if you didn't like the fact that your neighbor was gay or black? What if you didn't like the smell of the dinners he makes for himself?

    "There are laws that prohibit neighbors from playing loud music," he replied. "There are a lot of leases that have clauses that prohibit strong cooking odors that come into your apartment from another person's apartment." Smoking neighbors, he says, are the source of most of the complaints they hear at the coalition.

    "Ideally," he continued, "we think that the responsibility is with the landlord. We feel a person has the right to smoke in [his] apartment, and we feel that a person should have the right not to breathe smoke in their apartment. The way to accommodate both is by having proper insulation in the apartments, so the smoke from the smoker's apartment is contained inside the smoker's apartment, and doesn't allow it to go to other apartments. That responsibility lies with the landlord."

    I pointed out that they don't talk much about insulation problems on the site, but instead emphasize slapping your neighbor with a lawsuit.

    "We try to put on the website any articles that pertain to apartment smoking that we find," he explained. "Those were the ones we found. In some cases people have taken their neighbors to court. I would suggest taking your landlord to court, rather than your neighbor."

    All this antismoking legislation?the excise taxes piled upon excise taxes, the restrictions, the advertising bans?all seem to be pointing in one inevitable direction. So I asked Mr. Cherner straight out if the ultimate goal of the coalition was to outlaw smoking altogether.

    "No, absolutely not," he insisted. "The goal is to prevent another generation of tobacco addiction and lung cancer. That's the goal. If, in the process of reaching that goal?reducing disease and reducing addiction?the tobacco industry were to go out of business, then so what? But that's not the goal."