Smoke Free, At Last
Second-Hand Modern Living with Carcinogens


I come from a smoke-free family. I’m not a smoker.  My parents never smoked and neither did their parents… smoke tobacco.  But that didn’t prevent us from being smoke tolerant.  As long as we were in a well-ventilated area, we never made a fuss about the carcinogens we may have breathed in from the smoke of others.  After all, we inhaled wildfire benzene-enhanced seasonal smoke in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley for years.  We made suburban cocktails with spray paint, RAID, carbon monoxide and diesel fumes.  What’s a little smoke between friends?  While we avoided tobacco smoked filled restaurants and applauded when smoking was banned in airliners, we recognized that smoking gave cool comfort to nicotine junkies.  So, we gave them their space. 

Later in life, I sought out people who smoked (in restricted areas, of course — smoking rooms, atriums, out-of-doors). I was drawn by their words and the atmosphere. Smokers always had the best conversations, I thought. Gershwin, Einstein, Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce — they were my heroes and they were all smokers.  Why would I not want to cop the vibe of spiraling smoke and join that conversation?

But currently, judging from the televised public service announcements I’ve seen, I made a horrible mistake by befriending the cigarette crowd.  Lured by the romance of nicotine ambiance and inspired talk, I was exposed to the monster of second hand smoke — smoke from a cigarette creeping through alleys, vents and hallways relentlessly until it finds a mark.  Me.  There it settles in a crease of tissue ready to transform into a cancerous death.

Yet, as I steady my soul to pay this ultimate price, I wonder:  As part of the conversation, why aren’t there public service announcements that protect me from bug sprays, or diesel fumes, or nuclear meltdowns, or carbon dioxide, or antibiotics.  Why is it that, while carcinogens from chemical sources with stronger lobbies in Washington fester in my food, drink, carpeting and clothing, somehow, the carcinogens from breathing someone else’s tobacco smoke has become the target for all that government ad campaign dollar? 

Which brings me to the University of California where earlier this year President Mark Yudof announced that, if all goes well, every UC campus will be smoke-free by the year 2014.  What Yudof seems to be proposing is that if you ignite tobacco anywhere on any UC campus you will be charged with an infraction of a new second hand smoke code. Campuses are big places.  They have parks, fields, and open space.  In the year 2014, all of these areas will be protected from the presence of burning tobacco… and a nicotine rush.  Will they be protected from other forms of polluted air, poisoned water and, if I may ask, tainted funding?  Will they be protected from organizations who fund California universities like Dow Chemical; maker of napalm, Agent Orange, rupturing breast implants, and DBCP — a soil fumigant that causes human sterilization?  Probably not.  But my faith is that somehow these problems will be solved.

Eventually, when second hand tobacco smoke is washed from the face of the earth, we will be better people, our lungs will be clear of tobacco smoke, our bodies will be free of nicotine. This will be a great day. I may not be there with you, but this will be the day when all of God's non-smoking second-hand smoke-free children will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old National Cancer Institute spiritual, “Free at last.  Free, at last.  Thank God almighty.  We are smoke free, at last.”

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast March 2, 2012

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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