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no smoking in public

It’s a gloriously luscious day—not oppressively humid, like it typically is here in the lovely District of Columbia—and people are thronging the out-of-doors, trying to soak up as much of the beautiful weather before the inevitable cold snap settles in signaling the start of fall. I, and all of my belongings, are sprawled across a table at a picturesque little sitting area, complete with a soothing waterfall display and contemporary jazz tunes piped through invisible speakers. I’ve got my Potbelly turkey on wheat, my Sprite and my bag of chips, my laptop and a shady spot to start writing in. I’m channeling the creative serenity of Zora Neale Hurston and listening to a muzak version of a Jill Scott song. (Doesn’t matter which one because they’re all awesome.) I’m in my zone, at peace, inspired, relaxed and ready to work.

Then a cloud of cigarette smoke comes wafting through the air and assaults my nostrils with the offensive odor of exhaust. Dam-mit.

I whip around to see who the culprit is. Not in an I’m-gonna-get-you-sucka kind of way, but in such a manner to see which direction it’s coming from and if the person on the other end of the smog looks like they’re just about done or just getting started. I don’t know everything about the human anatomy, but it seems like I’m biologically outfitted with a magnet that attracts smokers to sit within a 10 foot radius of me and light one up. I really should get that checked out. I find myself walking behind them and their trail of processed nicotine on the streets. Getting stranded beside them as they group up for breaks outside of office buildings. And clearly, sucking down their second-hand fumes in the local park. Never fails.

Now, it should be said that I’m not necessarily an anti-smoking snob. My mom was a two-packs-a-day diva my whole life. I’m crazy proud to say she quit two years ago—cold turkey, no less—and has passed every sniff test, ashtray inspection and under-mattress check I’ve casually performed since then. She gave it up on her own, actually. The cost of cigarettes was getting too outrageous, she said, and the politics around smoking were too much of a hassle because between the government and individual proprietors outlawing smoking in bars, restaurants, hotel rooms, parks and playgrounds, she found herself huddled in her car or banished to a tiny designated area to get her fix. She didn’t appreciate that, but most importantly, she didn’t like the feeling that something had that much control over her.

Alas, before she was able to finally kick the habit, I developed asthma as a result of being surrounded by her vapors all of those years. (She’s fine, but I’ve got to walk with an inhaler. How’s that work?) Since I’m not used to being around it when I’m at home anymore and since I’ve got this condition that seizes my lungs if I’m in a cloud of carbon monoxide too long, standing in a smoker’s fog has become that much more nerve-wracking. But one thing I’ve learned is that smokers are very protective of their habit, to the point where they’re downright defensive against anyone who dare come up against them.

I posted a Facebook status once expressing my annoyance because I smelled like smoke even though I never wrapped my lips around a cigarette and a friend, who I didn’t even know was a smoker—she always smells good and doesn’t have that husky voice—lambasted me on my own darn page about smoker’s rights. Oh, it’s a movement, baby, like an all-for-one fraternity of nicotine addicts, and they are impassioned not so much about the actual smoking, I think, as they are about the right to do it.

I mean, honestly: who wants to throw on a coat and trudge outside to huddle in the ever-depleting smoker’s area in the subzero temperatures of February just to suck down a cancer stick? Really? Methinks it’s not the high life, but they fight the good fight for the freedom of choice to do just that. Can’t get some of these folks to register to vote or pick a side on the abortion debate, but threaten to move the smoking receptacles to the windier side of the building and suddenly they go all Public Enemy. In a society where liberties are being challenged and plucked away one by one, they find comfort in being able to light one up and say eff you to what you and you and you and yes, even you says about it, in cool, Frank Sinatra circa the Rat Pack era kind of way.

Hey, if you can still enjoy a nice, long drag with all that we now know about the long-term effects of nicotine use, drag on, y’all. Nobody’s forcing you to quit because apparently, nobody can force you to quit. That fight is futile. If the cost of cigarettes—what are they? Like $9 a pack?—and those Tip From a Former Smoker commercials featuring people with holes in their necks and robotic-sounding voice boxes don’t make you slap on a patch, certainly the pleadings of the general public are falling on deaf ears. But all I ask is that you sit downwind and have some consideration for the people who don’t indulge. You don’t want to be backed into quitting just like I don’t want to be inadvertently forced into participating. And we can all luxuriate in the air around us.

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  • NOitAll

    OMG Janelle! I FEEL you on this. My father was a chain smoker and I developed chronic sinus and lung infections because of it. But he doesn’t have that problem. I think it’s because they filter out the bad stuff and exhale it, while we non-smokers breathe it all right in.

    And what you said about smokers invading your space is right on! I too turn around and look to see where the offensive odor is coming from. Then, I move away. I don’t want to confront anyone. I don’t want to hear any lip, then I’d have to hit somebody and go to jail for it.

    I think non-smokers should form coalitions just like smokers. We should be as aggressive about our right to breathe fresh air as they are about their “right” to stink it up.