This is how the world works:
A woman enters a bad marriage and everyday her husband beats her as her children watch. Sometimes the children learn this behavior and the boys beat their wives when they grow up. The girls believe that part of being a wife is to be beaten by your husband. The neighbors hear the screaming and they know what is happening but they are silent because they have been taught that itís none of their business.
And somewhere there are people in power who hate Jews or hate someone because their skin is too dark, or perhaps they hate another religious group Everyday common ordinary people are confronted with hatred and prejudices until they begin to believe they are normal. Even if something in their hearts tells them it isnít right, they still allow it to continue because they are not a part of the group who are oppressed. They are a part of the privileged group, so they go along in their lives indifferent to the suffering around them.
Somewhere else in the world there are men who have been taught to go into the coal mines and breathe coal dust into their lungs so they can barely get enough money to support their families. Itís ironic that they are not allowed to smoke in the mines, not because smoking is bad for your health, but because it may cause an explosion and cut into the profits of the company. So to check for poison gases in the mine they bring a small cage with a canary. If the canary dies they leave the mine to protect themselves. But one day the black lung takes their life anyway. Their sons watch them die, then go into the mines themselves because they believe they have no choice.
One day a woman fights back and breaks the cycle of violence, becoming an example for women everywhere and the world changes. One day the minorities have had enough. They join together to fight the oppressors and educate the people who are indifferent and the world changes. One day the workers get fed up and organize to demand more money and better working conditions and the world changes. Then we look back and wonder how we could have been so stupid and naive in the past, to allow these things to have existed. The world changes because one day in someoneís life something happens which puts that person in a position where there is no longer any choice but the choice to fight back!
For three weeks I sat beside Robís bed helpless, watching his struggle to get air into his failing lungs. I understood the fear and panic that accompanies that feel of drowning. I had felt that way myself many times throughout my life. I could imagine that no matter how much or how deeply he breathed it was not enough. I had personal memories of the feeling of heaviness that one gets upon the chest, the pain of sucking air through passages too small to accommodate it. I knew all too well the extent of panic that accompanies the loss of the vital life force we call prana. How ironic that I should be forced to watch him struggle with a high pressure oxygen mask attached to his face as I recalled his speeches in the 13th century castle ruins above Loutro, Crete. There in the Greek summer sunshine he had explained to his students the importance of the breath. "Without the breath there is no life! Breathe deeply into the lungs and watch them rise until they are full." Now there was not enough room in his lungs to sustain his own life. As I watched him take his last breath it was the most poignant moment of my life. After 15 years of having him stand beside me I was not prepared for the enormous void that opened up in my life.
Adriano and I were both there with Rob when he died in the London hospital. Now we had the painful task of returning his ashes to New Jersey to his parents. There was a problem with Adrianoís ticket, related to his Italian visa, so we were the last to board the Continental Airline flight to Newark. As we approached the door to the plane I noticed a woman close to tears arguing with an airline employee. As I came closer I heard him tell the woman there were no nonsmoking seats left, so if she insisted on a nonsmoking seat she would have to take another flight. I knew the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rules about providing nonsmoking seats to those who request them, so I knew the man was lying to her. When I informed him that both Adriano and I also required nonsmoking seats he repeated the same line to us about having to take another flight. In this moment a little voice inside my head told me the moment had arrived for my personal liberation. I told him if the airline did not make the entire flight nonsmoking I would report them to the FAA when we arrived in the States. Annoyed, he snapped at me. "You donít have to tell me how to do my job!" He left us for the cockpit. He soon returned to tell us the flight would be nonsmoking all the way to Newark, so we could take our seats.
After we had taken our seats an irate smoker in our row began to complain very loudly. "I canít go all the way to New Jersey without a cigarette!" A sympathetic flight attendant, a smoker herself, told the woman she would designate our row a smoking row. I screamed in a very assertive voice, "NO! This will be a nonsmoking flight to New Jersey. There will be no more debate!" Another flight attendant came to whisper to the smoker colleague who then informed the smoker passenger she could not smoke during the flight. Both smokers gave me an indignant look as though I had done some terrible thing to them! This was the exact moment I resolved to change the unfair way smoking in public is viewed. I realized I had spent a lifetime of suffering with illnesses so smokers would not have to go too long without a cigarette!
As we sat there with the urn that contained Robís ashes I wondered how things had gotten so screwed up. How was it that everything dealing with cigarettes was exactly the opposite of common sense and fairness? How did smokers come to attain this special privilege of polluting the air at the expense of everyone around them? Why did an addictís need to sustain an addiction supersede the right of people to breathe clean air? How had persons with asthma and respiratory diseases been intimidated into silence while smokers gained sympathy for having to endure long periods without their cigarettes? In the beginning airlines had actually designated the longer flights as smoking flights to accommodate the smokers. After all, we canít expect them to go 6 to 10 hours without a cigarette. But persons who are made ill by smoke pollution were expected to be ill for 6 to 10 hours in order to accommodate the smokers! As I thought about the indignant attitudes of the two smokers on my flight I felt they had attempted to steal a basic human right. I was the one entitled to righteous indignation at the absurd notion that they wanted to steal my right to breathe clean unpolluted air!
I would be haunted by those three weeks at Robís bedside for years to come. I had become angry with every person who took the breath for granted. I was angry with those who abused others by taking away their basic human right to breathe. I became very focused on the absurdity of humans sucking smoke into their lungs. I was finally allowing myself to see smoking the way it really is. Now I could see how I myself had participated in this absurdity through my silence. I noticed that by reflex action I always stopped breathing when approached on the street by a smoker. I always held my breath until safely past them. I had learned to take this action for granted without being conscious of doing it. Like those who were oppressed before me, I acted out my role without the righteous anger at having it imposed upon me. I wondered at what point in my life this behavior had begun. I had come to accept the burning eyes, the frequent bouts of bronchitis and the vomiting at the end of long airline flights. The most absurd part of the whole story was the fact that I had endured all these hardships and physical abuses throughout my life so smokers would not have to go too long without a cigarette! I was not the one who had made the mistake of smoking that first cigarette, but I was the one who was expected to pay for someone elseís bad judgment!
In the spring of 1996 I had made plans to return to the Greek island of Crete to spread half of Robís ashes in the castle ruins where he had taught yoga classes. This had been his request days before he died. I was careful to make sure I was booked on all nonsmoking flights. I was to return to Europe via Amsterdam on a Martinair flight from Miami. When we left Miami the captain told us we would be making an unscheduled stop in Orlando before going on to Amsterdam. After leaving Orlando the captain made a second announcement. Because of complaints from some of the smoking passengers, the flight was now designated a smoking flight. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by Germans who began to light up their cigarettes in the designated nonsmoking area. Since the flight had originally been a nonsmoking flight there had been no attempt to separate the smokers from the nonsmokers. I screamed until a flight attendant came to explain to the Germans that they needed to change seats if they wanted to smoke. Once again they glared at me as if I had done something horrible to them! Once again my needs were considered second rate to the needs of smokers. No one was interested in the fact that my rights had been trampled on! There were no apologies for the fact that I had been lied to about the status of the flight. When we finished our meal all of the smokers lit up their cigarettes at the same moment filling the back of the cabin with a cloud of smoke, effectively cutting off my access to the toilet. Soon the air filtration system was circulating the smoke through the entire plane and my head began to pound with sharp pain at the temples.
When I arrived in Amsterdam I had a difficult time getting to the toilet before I began to vomit. My head was hurting so badly my vision was blurred. I had no energy any longer to fight, I could only cry. It was not easy going back to Loutro with the ashes of the most important person in my life. It wasnít easy to face being there alone for the first time. Now being sick added an extra drain on my emotions. The following morning I awoke with the usual after flight sinus infection, coughing and tightness in my chest. As I coughed up the yellow green mucus that had made its way toward my chest during the night, I couldnít help remembering the arrogant looks on the German smokersí faces! I would have to take antibiotics and screw up my intestines for at least six months, once again so smokers wouldnít have to go too long without a cigarette. In my depressed state of mind I wondered if I would get pneumonia and die as Rob had died. In some moments the idea of dying seemed preferable to facing the problems related to socializing with respiratory problems in a world that accepted smoking cigarettes as a right more important than breathing itself.
Rob had died in 1995. That year a new law had gone into effect in California that banned smoking in restaurants and cafes. For the first time in January 1995, I could sit in the Cafes of San Francisco drinking tea and reading the newspaper like everyone else. The tobacco companies had warned that the new law would put restaurants and cafes out of business. The opposite had happened instead. Cafes began to flourish and those who could not tolerate smoke-filled bars began to socialize in the cafes. I began to go to more restaurants and realized the extent to which I had modified my entire life in order that smokers not have to go too long without a cigarette. I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I had not been intelligent enough to see it so clearly before. Perhaps it was the cigarette smoke that had clouded my vision in the past. Without an example of clean air for comparison it had been like not being able to see the forest for the trees.
In 1997 I returned to Germany to attend a conference of ILGA, the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Cologne. I wanted to address the problem of smoking in the Gay community and its effects on persons with AIDS and respiratory diseases. Gay bars and clubs were notorious for being extremely smoky. There were few if any alternatives offered to Gay men and Lesbians for socializing. I knew that smoky gay bars had caused my cigarette smoke induced asthma, given the fact that I had never smoked myself. I was angry that many of my friends who had died from AIDS had been cut off socially even more in the last days of their lives because of not being able to tolerate the smoke pollution. When I tried to register for the conference on health I was sent to a small room filled with people smoking. I tried to register several times, but left each time because I couldnít breathe. I couldnít even stay long enough to get someoneís attention to complain. Then I began to lose my ability to get enough oxygen into my lungs. I had one of the worst asthma attacks I had experienced to that date. I sat in the parking lot using my inhaler. When I got my strength back I went to my friend Stefanís apartment to pack my bag. I wanted to go back to California where I could sit in the cafe and read my newspaper in the morning like everyone else!
When I arrived at the Dom Hauptbahnhof to buy my ticket to the Frankfurt Airport I was required to stand in line while people all around me smoked. When I requested a nonsmoker seat the ticket agent told me it was impossible, I would have to reserve a smoking seat because smokers had taken all the nonsmoker seats. It seems they donít want to sit in the smoke for the entire trip, so they walk into the isles, smoke their cigarettes, then return to their nonsmoker seats leaving their smoke to oppress someone else. When the train arrived I was lucky and found a vacant seat in a nonsmoker cabin that was reserved from Frankfurt to Munich, so I was able to use it to the airport in Frankfurt.
When I arrived at the airport I was sure my ordeal with smoke had ended. After all I was booked on a Delta nonsmoking flight to the States. I entered the waiting area to find myself surrounded by Germans sucking on their last cigarettes before the flight. I was outraged that I was confined in this small space and required to breathe their pollution. When I complained to the Delta employee she simply stated, "you are not in the States sir, you are in Germany!" Then I began to argue with her. I asked her why there wasnít even an attempt to separate the smokers from the nonsmokers. Then I noticed there were huge ashtrays everywhere. I began to roll them all into the far corner in a cluster. I announced that I had asthma and the smoking area would now be in the corner with the ashtrays. I asked that everyone please refrain from smoking in all other areas. To this I received applause from the other American passengers. Then a Black security guard came to me with a friendly smile on his face. He handed me a form for making complaints to the airport. Fill this out, return it to me and I will make sure your complaint is heard, he told me. I felt as though we were two foreigners conspiring to break the intolerance of German smokers.
It was this trip that made me aware of a special kind of smoker that exists in places like Germany. One person had told me he was not responsible for my asthma, asking why he should have to change his behavior to accommodate my illness. I told him it was I who always had to change my behavior and my life because of smokersí addictions. I told him my asthma was caused by cigarette smoke. Since I had never smoked a cigarette in my life, smokers were responsible for my illness. There were German anti-health smokers who ridiculed everything healthy and everyone who was supportive of a healthy lifestyle. I could see how nervous it made them to be around people who actually care about their health, who make a conscious effort to protect their bodies. What I witnessed was a kind of tobacco fascism. They were willing to do everything in their power to protect the illusions that made them able to believe that smoking was normal and desirable. I was frightened by their lack of compassion and the vicious way they attacked anyone who chose not to support their addiction. And as I began to see more clearly I began to stop seeing myself as a victim. It became clear to me how they were manipulating my life to support their disease of nicotine addiction.
On my holidays in Greece or Portugal or Southeast Asia I was always confronted with these special German smokers who would get angry at any suggestion that they had to take responsibility for their smoke. Each evening I would have to excuse myself and go to my room so I would not become too ill, spending the next days in bed. As each evening wore on more smokers would seat themselves at my table until I finally had to leave. They were all aware I had asthma. They knew cigarette smoke made me ill. Not one of them was willing to stop smoking while sitting at my table. They were perfectly happy to give me a sympathetic smile and allow me to leave so they wouldnít have to go too long without a cigarette. And all the while they were denying my right to socialize, to participate in life. With their arrogance, their lack of compassion and awareness, they had claimed the whole world for themselves. I realized I was participating in my own oppression. I was afraid to tell them my table was a nonsmoker table. They had convinced me it was not possible to claim my right to breathe clean air. The most obvious representation of tobacco fascism was when one smoker told me I should go back to California and stay there with the other people like myself. For every three smokers in Germany there are seven nonsmokers. I thought to myself, perhaps itís time to educate the nonsmokers to fight back! Perhaps itís time for them to stop saying, "it doesnít bother me when someone smokes at my table." The truth is Germans have a need to be seen as tolerant, so sometimes they will tolerate the intolerable to be accepted.
One of the things that enlightenment brings into oneís life is a reevaluation of oneís entire history through a new perspective. I was now required to go back into my own history and reevaluate my memories about cigarette smoke pollution. I found that I had blocked out many memories because they were too painful or frustrating. The biggest surprise was how I had not connected them together as being related to each other before. Now they began to flow like a dam that had burst in a downpour. Everything began making sense for the first time.
At 15 years old I shared my bedroom with my older brother who was already smoking cigarettes. My protests to my parents went unheard because they thought my request for a smokefree bedroom infringed on his right to smoke. I was subjected to frequent bouts of bronchitis and lived with the fear that I would die in my sleep from smoke inhalation if he set the room on fire. My brother smoked in bed and frequently fell asleep while smoking. Even at that young age I remember thinking it was unfair I should have to be sick from someone else's bad habit. It was wrong that he should be able to jeopardize my life by smoking in bed. I was sure I would never smoke a cigarette as long as I lived.
When I was 17, I was hanging out at skating rinks because my boyfriend was a national champion dance skater. One evening the father of a friend turned to me to ask if I minded if he smoked. I was surprised that a smoker would care enough to even ask! When I explained why I would rather he didn't smoke he went into a rage. "Who the Hell do you think you are, a kid telling an adult what to do!" he screamed at me. This was the exact moment I learned what was acceptable in our culture regarding secondhand smoke. I knew from then on that people who ask if you mind if they smoke only do so because they know you will not have the courage to say yes. This was spring of 1966 and from that moment on I feared confronting smokers on a subconscious level. I had been taught, as all nonsmokers were taught, to be afraid to speak up for my right to breathe clean air.
Sometime soon after that experience I was riding in the back seat of a car traveling on an Interstate highway. There were 4 people smoking with the windows rolled up because they didn't want the wind to blow their hair. I told them I was getting sick and asked them to stop smoking, to open the windows. They laughed at me, ignoring my pleas the way people do when they are tickling you but you are ready to cry from the pain. In self-defense I began to scream hysterically until they were probably convinced that I was crazy. I just kept screaming for the driver to stop the car. He finally let me out on the highway, just to get rid of me. I hitchhiked home in another car with a man who was not smoking. No one could understand that to be without air is like drowning. In that moment you just lash out for any attempt to get fresh air into your lungs. You have no time to explain why you are so desperate, nor can you worry about what other people think of you in that moment. It had taken me a long time to learn how to stop this abuse of my right to breathe. Before I had just sat quietly, confused, not knowing what to do. I didn't want to hurt the feelings of my friends. I didn't want them to think I was crazy. I didn't want them to stare at me like I was telling a lie. But on this day I became so sick I really thought I would die if I didn't get air soon. I had no choice but to scream.
When I was 24 years old I had moved to Florida. The rule in my house: no one could smoke under any circumstances. Two friends from my hometown had come to Florida to find jobs. I invited them to stay with me until they could find their own apartments. They could not accept I had a right to prohibit smoking in my own home. One evening both of them lit cigarettes at the supper table, blowing smoke into my face as a joke. They thought I was overreacting when I became angry. After dinner they went out for a short time. When they returned they found all their belongings outside the front door in big green garbage bags. I left a note telling them to find a motel. Once again I was seen as the crazy hysterical non-smoker, but I had now experienced that feeling of drowning one too many times.
I began to feel isolated and totally unable to socialize, so at one point I decided to start going to clubs and restaurants in spite of the cigarette smoke. During this time I was plagued with very frequent bouts of bronchitis and sinus infections. My longest periods without being seriously ill were probably 5 or 6 weeks at the most. In 1973 I had my most serious attack of smoke induced bronchitis. I passed out and a neighbor found me unconscious on the floor of my apartment with a high fever. I was out of work for 6 weeks, plagued with an ear infection that would not go away. My lips and nose were covered with fever blisters. I was unable to eat without pain. Again in 1978 I became so ill I was coughing up blood. My co-worker Carlo sent me off to the hospital in an ambulance. I slowly became accustomed to the idea that if I wanted to participate in the world I would be sick about every 6 to 8 weeks. Somehow in my twenties this seemed to be easier than facing total isolation. This pattern continued until I entered a permanent relationship in 1980. At that time I gave up going out to smoky bars and restaurants and my illnesses subsided once again.
When my partner Rob and I began to travel to Europe six years later, I noticed my symptoms had returned. On one trip I spent three days in bed in Paris because of exposure to secondhand smoke in a macrobiotic restaurant. I began to avoid eating out in restaurants, so I ate from sidewalk vendors and supermarkets in the city famous for its good food! As we traveled by train Rob became accustomed to spending the first day in each destination alone while I recovered in bed. On every airline flight I arrived at my destination with severe headaches and vomiting. When domestic flights in America went non-smoking my symptoms again went away. I didnít need a scientific study to prove to me the dangers of secondhand smoke! I had one German friend suggest if I took up smoking cigarettes myself perhaps I wouldnít be so sensitive to secondhand smoke! I was truly the canary in the coal mine. I had not disconnected the alarm that tells me smoking is dangerous. I had not trained myself to stop coughing so I could pretend sucking smoke into the lungs is cool. I was surprised when my German friend explained that she had only started smoking so she could go out to clubs without being too sensitive to smoke pollution. When I began to ask other Germans why they smoked, I was shocked to find that this was a pretty common answer!
In the summer of 1989 I was visiting a friend in Munich, West Germany. I had already made many contacts within the AIDS community the winter before because of my work in San Francisco as a caretaker. Through AIDS Hilfe, the major German AIDS help organization, I was sent to a retreat in the German forest for people with AIDS. I was looking forward to a week among people who were interested in healing and reducing stress in their lives. If there existed a place in Germany where I could find relief from the constant assault of tobacco smoke, I thought this would be it. I couldnít have been more mistaken. I was put in the top bunk in a room filled with bunk beds. Many of the men would take afternoon naps then get up at 11:00 pm to party. There was plenty of hard liquor, drugs and cigarettes. I was surprised at the contrast from the German safer sex campaign that I had witnessed. I felt it was much more focused on being safe because of a love of life rather than a fear of death. But in the Waldschląsschen, I felt surrounded by men who were more interested in killing themselves off quickly than they were in healing. There were no visible signs that their actions were in any way related to a love of life.
So I spent two nights lying in the top bunk breathing cigarette smoke that drifted up from the main entertainment room one floor below me. In the early morning I would get up with the sunrise to take long walks in the forest trying to clear my lungs. It was a familiar pattern now! Everyone looked at me like I was some kind of recluse, a strange boring Californian who didnít drink, didnít smoke and therefore didnít know how to have fun. The extreme behavior of German smokers had given me a new sense of self-esteem though. In a strange way I felt privileged that my body had chosen to constantly remind me of how ludicrous it is to suck smoke into oneís lungs.
After seeing my entire life as an "involuntary smoker" I began to see everything around me without the blinders I had used to make life tolerable before. I realized one problem smokers have with the new anti-smoking laws is that they make the smokers look bad. It brings out the true image of a smoker instead of the one that was carefully crafted by the advertising executives for the tobacco industry. Gone are the masculine cowboys and the sophisticated women in designer dresses with cigarette holders. Those actors and models all died of lung cancer and the tobacco companies went to great lengths to suppress these facts. The glamorous image is lost now as smokers clamor on the streets outside office buildings and restaurants desperately sucking the smoke into their lungs to sustain their next fix. And some of them are not without complaints! Oh yes, the poor smokers being abused by the militant nonsmokers who have taken away their freedom of choice. Every time I hear this typical right wing type of rhetoric my blood begins to boil. Instead of admitting that they have made a mistake they blame their victims. They canít own up to the fact of fifty years of calculated abuse of nonsmokers. We are much kinder than they have been to us in the past, but they still canít take it. I wonder how they would feel if we forced them to stay home instead of going out into public. The real denial of freedom of choice was when nonsmokers were forced to stay home because it was the only place they could escape the tobacco smoke pollution. Smokers have a choice nonsmokers were never given! They can go to public places that are nonsmoking, they simply have to leave their cigarettes behind. So what is this sacred right they have been denied? Is it the right to pollute the air? Is it the right to inflict harm upon others? Is it the right to deny their own responsibility for the life they have chosen? They are like angry spoiled children who have always gotten their way. And now they are angry because the bad nonsmokers wonít agree to suffer for them any longer so they wonít have to wait too long for their next cigarette!
After the California law banning smoking in bars was implemented I experienced the first winter of my adult life without being sick. I went an unprecedented 15 months without having to take antibiotics! With the experience of living in a totally smokefree environment I realized that many of the illnesses I had attributed to winter weather were caused by secondhand smoke instead. Many nonsmoker friends who tended bar told of coughing up mucus for weeks after the ban was implemented, then they had miraculous changes in their health. They too began to realize the extent to which tobacco smoke had compromised their health. It was no surprise that a poll taken ten months after the California law was implemented showed a majority of California smokers supporting the ban as well as nonsmokers. The tobacco industry knew they were facing the biggest challenge ever. They had spent close to $50,000,000 to get it repealed, but still the California ban remained in effect.
By 1999 I had spent hundreds of hours on the computer as a nonsmoker advocate. I had helped organize email and letter campaigns to keep the California law in place. I began to advocate for the rights of nonsmoker travelers, organizing campaigns to get all flights to and from the United States smokefree. I read with anger, some of the millions of pages of internal Tobacco Company documents that were released by American courts. I began to collect stories of nonsmokers just like me who had spent lifetimes with illnesses caused by secondhand smoke. When they told of the headaches and the vomiting and the sinus infections and the repeated bouts of bronchitis I was finally released from decades of Tobacco Industry propaganda. Through advertising and mob like intimidation and censorship they had convinced an entire world that I was crazy and without rights. Now I had become free at last!
I could imagine that I had been in prison for more than 40 years. As I walked the streets I could see things I had never noticed before. One day in Frankfurt I was walking at sunset when I noticed a huge cloud of smoke rising from a cafe in the distance. The setting sun had highlighted the smoke so its destructive path was visible to the naked eye. I could only feel sorry for the poor people in its path who were unaware of its real danger. The accepted lie in Germany is that smoking outside couldnít possibly be harmful to nonsmokers. How could it be since people seem to survive the extreme smoke pollution that exists inside buildings everywhere in Germany? Then one evening in Cologne I saw the men with the brooms sweeping the sidewalks after a Friday night. There were literally piles of cigarette butts being scooped into huge bags. With this I realized two things. They were removing the butts regularly, which meant they had all been thrown down recently. The second thing I realized was smokers think the whole world is one big ashtray. They have no problem throwing their butts down wherever they may be standing when they take their last drag.
It was the smokerís cough in Germany that really opened my eyes to the tobacco industry conspiracy. I was able to distinguish between the smokerís cough and a regular cough. It was the deep permanent sound of the smokerís cough that most caught my attention. The thing that amazed me was that it was always relieved by another cigarette. I thought of what a perfect conspiracy the tobacco industry had created to make a lot of people rich! How was it that they convinced millions of people to ignore the messages of their own bodies?
Their advertising campaign to glamorize smoking was the first element needed to make it work. The fact that they knew from their own research that smoking was both addictive and harmful to the smokerís health gave them an advantage if they could keep their secrets. This is why they developed an intricate system of deception and strong-arm tactics to keep the advertising community in line. They blackmailed and threatened any publication that would consider printing the truth about legitimate scientific research. They were successful since they were the largest revenue source for most publications. To expose the tobacco industry conspiracy could mean certain death to any publication. They paid off Hollywood to make smoking look glamorous, they even paid off Lucy and Ricky to smoke in the I Love Lucy series on television. Now the basic elements were in place for a successful business venture. They had an addictive product that they could support by supplying the addicts with moral support for their addictions. They could addict children for life because they had made the act of smoking look cool. By the time people had trained their bodies to stop rejecting the smoke by coughing, it was too late. By this time they were physically addicted and the tobacco companies could count on their financial contributions for the rest of their lives. When I saw the smokers coughing in Germany I saw their bodies coming back for one last attempt to warn them of their plight. It was sad to see this graphic manifestation of the insidious nature of nicotine addiction. The next cigarette was more important than the precious breath that sustains life itself. No wonder they donít care about the harm it does to others. That would require self-esteem and self-love.
One of the latest propaganda ploys by the tobacco industry is to claim that raising the price of cigarettes causes a hardship on the poor. Instead of taking responsibility for addicting the poor to nicotine products in the first place, they attempt to defer the responsibility to the nonsmoking movement. Of course they never mention that they have also raised the prices to protect their own profits. And as always they try to have it both ways, depending on what kind of propaganda they need in a given moment. When Poland recently enacted a ban on tobacco advertising to take effect in 2001, the tobacco industry warned that a ban could be counter-productive because they would be forced to spend their advertising budgets on price wars that would make cigarettes cheaper and more accessible to the poor. One might be tempted to laugh at the absurdity of such blatant manipulation of the truth. We have all seen the tapes of the tobacco CEOs lying to Congress about the dangers of nicotine though.
Until recently they have denied that tobacco was addictive or caused cancer, using all their resources to relay this denial to the smoking public. Their denials were carefully constructed to support the typical type of denial used by all drug addicts to excuse their addictions. This misuse of psychology was right in line with their misuse of scientific data in order to hide the truth. Now their defense against liability is that smokers knew the dangers of smoking. Are they saying that 40 years and billions of dollars of advertising were ineffective?
When I lived in Berlin in 1991 during the reunification of Germany I saw persons handing out free Philip Morris cigarettes to very young boys in East Berlin and East Germany. I asked my German friend to speak to the person giving away the free cigarettes. He came back to explain that the person handing out the cigarettes had been specifically instructed to hand them out to young boys between the ages of 12 to 15 because they would be the wage earners of the future. The idea was to get them focused on a certain brand. Of course he was focused on the fact that the future might hold jobs for these young boys. They also were eager to be seen with something that could readily be identified as American! So when I saw the CEO of Philip Morris on a newscast in the Minnesota trial, testifying they did not target children abroad, I felt rage. In 1999 Germany is still full of all the tobacco billboards that have been banned in America because they appeal to children.
Years of tobacco industry propaganda created a class of smokers who advocate that the absurd become acceptable. They want to make those who tell the truth the enemy, but we are only the enemy of deception! If one reads through the secret internal memos from tobacco industry files, it is possible to imagine what kind of world would exist had there been no conspiracy to subvert the truth about tobacco for profit.
Imagine a world where smokers have to take responsibility for their smoke and the harm it does to others. Imagine that a smoker would feel guilty for blowing smoke into the face of a nonsmoker instead of being angry that the nonsmoker wants clean air to breathe. Imagine that all public places are free of tobacco smoke pollution because the right to breathe clean air supersedes the right to pollute it. Imagine that everyone who wants to quit smoking is able to quit because they are not exposed to secondhand smoke on their jobs and in public places. Imagine that no one is put in the position of taking up smoking because they donít want to be too sensitive to other peopleís smoke. Imagine that the tobacco industry is treated the same as all other industries, and made liable for deliberately selling a dangerous product. Imagine if smokers were seen as unglamorous, air polluters, litter bugs, weak in character, future impotent males, not masculine, not so intelligent, or suicidal instead of the fantasy image that was created by the tobacco industry to make smoking desirable. How many people would have chosen to participate in such a horrible anti-life process if it hadnít been for the unfair tobacco industry monopoly on information and their successful attempt to make something inherently disgusting look desirable. Smokers were addicted young and by the time they were mature enough to see the truth it was too late. Imagine how it would be if as much time, money and energy had been invested in the truth instead of subverting the truth for profit. Imagine that when a nonsmoker who has been a victim of the tobacco conspiracy for his entire life points out these simple truths he is not seen as a radical nonsmoker fanatic, but as an intelligent man who would like to see fairness and justice for all involved!
But then there are the Political Correctness Fanatics who tell me I canít say negative things about smokers. I am supposed to continue to pretend that sucking smoke into oneís lungs is a normal thing to do, a right to be protected by law. They want me to feel guilty and take responsibility for creating hardship for smokers by asking them not to harm other people with their smoke. I have one question for these protectors of the rights of smokers. Where were you for the last half a century when smokers were trampling on the rights of everyone who wanted to breathe clean air?
One of the most difficult problems in dealing with the struggle for a smokefree world outside of America is an idea that most non-Americans share. They believe Americans are fanatics about controlling other peopleís lives. This creates an interesting challenge for me because I happen to agree with this perspective of American culture in many cases! But the fight to make all public places smokefree is about ending the unfair control smokers have over the lives of nonsmokers. Anyone who believes that people should have the right to make their own choices would have to support the right for everyone to choose whether they want to put tobacco smoke into their lungs! With people like Senator Jessie Helms at the top of the political power structure in America, it is not unusual to witness tactics that are familiar to us all from the extreme right. They will claim that we want "special rights" for nonsmokers, trying to portray smokers as victims. We are in a struggle to correct a false image that was created by a half century of intense advertising and extreme censorship. When I am abroad with my new vision I notice that most smokers will accept my right to breathe clean air when I tell them I have asthma. At the same time they will blow their smoke into the faces of other nonsmokers as though they still have a natural right to do this!
So let me tell you whatís coming next. Smokers will expect nonsmokers to sit inside restaurants while all the smokers sit outside in the sunshine on a nice day! As in all the past struggles against pollution, it always begins with the task of destroying the idea that there is a vast dumping ground like the ocean or the sky where we can throw all our waste and it will never be noticed. Smokers want so badly to believe that smoking outside doesnít harm anyone. Any person who is harmed and has the courage to speak up is immediately labeled as a lunatic or someone extremely weak, to be pitied. Saying it is ok to smoke outside is like saying drivers can run over pedestrians as long as they are in the roadway. It is not allowed to run over pedestrians regardless of where they are, so it should not be allowed to force nonsmokers to breathe secondhand smoke regardless of where it is. We will need laws banning smoking in all parts of all restaurants so nonsmokers will no longer continue to be relegated to a second class status so smokers wonít have to go too long without a cigarette. Those smokers who stand in front of bars, cafes and businesses letting their smoke drift back into buildings that are supposed to be smokefree, will have to take responsibility for the laws that will come to protect nonsmokers from this practice. Everyone is going to have to get used to hearing the truth for a change. The truth is smoking is not normal, it is not natural, it is just dumb and it harms innocent people! Just because smokers want to believe that smoking outside doesnít harm anyone doesnít make it true!
Every time we attempt to make it easier for the smokers they abuse the privileges, so I say no more special rights for smokers. If they think things are getting too difficult let them quit smoking!! I personally have given up enough of my life and my health to this insanity. I am supposed to feel compassion for the suffering smokers have to endure at the hands of nonsmokers who want to breathe clean air. "But itís so hard to quit!" This comes from the same people who insisted just a few years ago that smoking was not addictive. Now they want to be protected by being classified as disabled! They want to be treated like the physically challenged so we should build special rooms with ventilation so they can continue to smoke inside buildings. So letís compare them to the physically challenged as they wish! Do we really believe that people who canít walk if given the choice between walking again or having ramps built for their wheelchairs would choose the ramps instead of walking again? I say enough is enough! No more special rights for smokers. Letís give them all the free counseling they need and begin to create a world free from the grip of the most powerful, insidious corporations on the face of the earth, the tobacco companies.
Note: Since first writing this story in the late 1990ís I have experienced the loss of two important family members to lung cancer. In August 2000, I spent 10 weeks at the bedside of my niece. She died at the age of 41, a smoker who tried desperately to quit. I went back to Illinois to care for my father who also died of lung cancer in September 2001. These two deaths are primarily responsible for the decision to create the website, smokefreerevolution.org. My life continues to take me in a direction where it is impossible to ignore my responsibility to take part in creating a smokefree future for everyone. My primary concern is to advocate for people with respiratory disease.