Applause for Tobacco – If Tepid

Remember when Herman Cain’s chief of staff casually smoked a cigarette near the end of one his candidate’s ads? Comedian Bill Maher made mention of it on his “Real Time with Me” HBO show Friday the 13th as he interviewed the former Republican candidate.

Here’s Cain’s ad

With gentle incredulity Maher asked if Cain had thought showing his chief of staff smoking a cigarette would garner more votes.

Cain said his campaign was unconventional and the ad was intentionally unconventional. “Smoking is not a sin,” he said. He then launched into a call for less intrusion into personal affairs, and for people to “let people be people.” Cain said the fact his staff chief smoked was one of the things that made the video go viral, hence a success.

Maher’s audience knows how to cheer for freedom to smoke, but this time the reaction was tepid and uncertain. Some of the audience must have been having a Borat movie moment, with every social cue telling them to applaud, but their minds going “I’m not going to cheer for cigarettes!”

If the combustable had been marijuana, you know the response would have been less ambiguous. In fact, seconds later, mentions of smoking pot got hearty applause.

Someone told me about being with an aid organization in India and trying to explain American jokes: “Why did the man throw the clock out the window? He wanted to see time fly!”

No response from the Indians to that and a slew of equally corny jokes. Until that is, a Sikh, – a member of an Indian religious and cultural minority — was made the butt of the joke. Evidently, if a Sikh threw the clock out the window because he wanted to see time fly, the joke was funny after all.

It matters both that you’re smoking and what you’re smoking.


Posted in Mutual Understanding, Smoking Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cigarette Bum

Back in the day, when the tolerance of cigarette smoke was astounding, I smoked in college classrooms, in restaurants, in movie theaters, in the waiting rooms of hospitals, in hotel lobbies and in the hallways outside courtrooms.

In the open air, smokers were unabashedly present. So much so that a poor college student smoker could “bum” (“borrow” in polite parlance) a lot of cigarettes from people lighting up on the street.

The route back to my dormitory ran through Washington Square Park to East 10th St. and my goal each evening was to bum at least 10 cigarettes on the way home, enough to get me through till morning. I carried a flip-top box in my pocket to carry my loot.

The flip-top box would fill with different brands of cigarettes, with a variety of filter colors and stripes. The distinctive cigarette pack of a cigarette bum.

There are a million techniques for bumming a cigarette. Like dating, success usually hinges on appearance, an aura of non-desperation and timing. Even in the days when smokers didn’t feel the cynical solidarity of a despised group, rude turndowns were rare.

The hard part was refusing the light.

Because if you’re bumming cigarettes to smoke later, you can’t let the borrowee intuit your quest.  There should be an air of “just left my pack at home” or “didn’t have time to stop for a pack.”

You could always accept the light, thank the donor, walk away and tamp out the cigarette as soon as possible, although that was inelegant. I, instead, would refuse the light, brandish a lighter or a pack of matches, walk ten paces away and stop. With my back to the borrowee, I adopted the hunched back, lowered head and cupped hands of person lighting up. I just didn’t succeed. Ten steps further, I again tried, unsuccessfully, and repeated until I had moved far enough away to stash the smoke in the flip-top box.

One night heading across the park I was accosted by a man in raggy old clothes, of indeterminate age, smelling of alcohol. He asked to “borrow” a cigarette.

Normally,  I turned such guys down. But I was feeling good. So I opened my flip-top box and the man noticed the different colors of filters and stripes of the smokes inside.

He showed his surprisingly not-so-so-bad teeth as I pulled a cigarette out and handed it to him. Then he reached below his outermost layer and opened a flip-top box filled with cigarettes whose variety of filters and stripes matched mine.

Baldly, without comment, he slipped my smoke into his pack and the pack disappeared beneath the clothes.

I considered his baldness a complement to me, his lack of artifice an acknowledgement of me, a fellow cigarette bum.

Posted in Smoking Life | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Too Bad We Can’t Clean the Air

I have a musician friend with years of experience playing in bars. Her present gig is a smoke-filled venue with poor ventilation. Throaty-sounding after a weekend of singing and swallowing smoke, she fondly reminisced about the much cleaner air in the casinos of Reno, Nevada, where she used to play.

“They had these big Smoke Eaters,” she said, referring to the extensive attention and expense casino owners paid to scrubbing the air with state-of-the-art filtration units. “And they worked!”

She makes me wonder if more restaurants and bars had made similar investments in cleaning the air, there might have been more compromise between smokers and nons.

Did restaurateurs try this and I missed it? Do I just eat and drink in the wrong places?

A big show of air-cleaning earlier in the Clean Air debate might have convinced a lot of moderate non-smokers that a compromise was possible. If the only choice is between total smoking bans or totally ignoring the comfort of non-smokers, many moderates will vote for the ban. This lack of choice has made at least some compromise-friendly non-smokers line up with the zealots who believe that cigarette smoke can travel through walls and drift upwind. This is the group that chants, “There is no safe level of cigarette smoke,” and “We pledge to end all tobacco use by (enter date here).”

I know a local tavern owner who’s kept up nights worrying about his bar being made to go smoke-free and losing his business. But he hasn’t yet installed expensive and effective Smoke Eaters. Might installing them win his position some public sympathy and head off his nightmare?

Maybe he doesn’t like to gamble. At least not at the casino.

Posted in Health & Science, Mutual Understanding, Politics & Policy, Smoking Life | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anti-Smokers Should Try Guerrilla Approach

I distribute a small publication in my remote Alaskan town and I would love to have an advertising billboard at the airport that said: “Whatever You Do, Read This Publication.”

If they wouldn’t let me do that, the next best thing would be a billboard saying: “Whatever You Do, Don’t Read This Publication.”

This is nothing new. The old saying is “The only bad advertising is no advertising.” Remember the crowds lining up for tickets outside theaters whose plays had been “Banned in Boston”?

According  to this old rule, the signs at schoolyards that say, “Tobacco-Free Zone” are providing free advertising and actually putting the idea of tobacco in people’s (and schoolkids’) heads. The same with the ubiquitous “No Smoking” signs many businesses have been ordered to put on their front doors. Or the clever, eye-catching anti-smoking ads run at the beginning of (often) Miramax DVDs.

People who wouldn’t ordinarily think of tobacco at all will think of it after seeing one of the above. That’s all advertisers ever want – just a little bit of your consciousness (or subconsciousness.)

This is why I – smoker – tend to light up when a character in a movie does the same.

I can hear your criticism: “These ads clearly say No!”  I would then ask you to consider the potent effect of the word “No” on people – especially the rebellious adolescents you’re trying to keep from experimenting with tobacco in the first place.

The new graphic images planned for cigarette packs will be attracting the attention of a lot of people (especially, already gross-image-friendly preadolescents) who would hopefully not be thinking about tobacco at all.

Instead, I think the anti-smoking folks should consider a guerrilla-style advertising campaign. Cover cigarette packs with messages promoting healthy lifestyle choices – broccoli, jogging, yoga – but do not mention smoking at all.

Make these clever and fun ads about what people should do for good health – instead of what they should not do.

I think such an indirect approach could be very effective in promoting healthy choices to a target population (smokers) – which might even lead to more of them quitting.


Posted in Health & Science, Politics & Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment