“Thank you for not breathing while I smoke,” read a ceramic plaque that hung conspicuously on a childhood friend’s kitchen wall. Even to this day, I can’t help but chuckle when I close my eyes and see this quip, not so much because of what it says, but because of who posted her message for all her guests to see – the delightfully irreverent friend’s mother whose fast-on-her-feet wit and charm are qualities she has taken to impressive heights over the years, and qualities that I perpetually, but unsatisfactorily aspire to.
So when I checked the Commonwealth of Virginia’s website this afternoon to track the Senate Committee bill that would place a ban on smoking in all restaurants, bars and many public places, my fluttering of hope for its enactment came bittersweet as I thought about all the good people I know who smoke, who may have to retreat to their kitchens, cars and other private properties to indulge in a cig. The same smokers who hold their habit and cigs close to their hearts, and who take personal offense against anyone who doesn’t welcome their cylindrical, paper-wrapped buddies.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for the ban. I honestly can’t believe that Virginia has to try once again to get this measure on the books, when it would seem to me that restricting public establishments from allowing guests’ cigarettes and cigars to hiss out a wealth of carcinogens in the air shared by other living creatures who have the right to breathe clean air would be a no-brainer. But what do I know? Besides, I am no longer burdened with the itch for the butts like my actively-smoking friends; in fact, I can feel the headache and nausea coming on just thinking of taking a drag again.
Hypocrite, you call me? Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. After all, how can I nag anyone about smoking when I used to smoke myself? Well, therein lies the divide between smokers and non-smokers. Non-smokers, from lifelong to reformed, tend to get a bit self-righteous around our puffing friends, pleading, “how can you do that to yourself?” or “what a disgusting habit.” I know they (we) mean well, but they (we) might as well call the smoker himself a stinky, harmful social evil. I mean, think about it – if I asked you how you can eat those vile circus peanuts, wouldn’t you feel a twinge of offense? You’re choosing to put those spongy, sugary globs of mystery binder in your body, your temple, even (gasp) enjoying them, so therefore it becomes a part of you, doesn’t it? Well, many smokers understandably make the short leap from accusation of “disgusting habit” to accusation of “hmmm, she might as well be calling me a disgusting person.” It’s rather harsh criticism from someone who is supposed to be a friend over something as seemingly petty as a spot of tobacco smoke.
Not that I’m letting smokers off the hook so easily. After all, you guys tend to forget your manners, light up without asking first, and then get a bit huffy whenever anyone even politely objects to your eye-burning noxious concoction. So, what to do in a world where puffers and smoke-swatters must live, laugh, love, and befriend? Well, for starters, how about we all distinguish the habit from the individual – that removes the personal affront to the smoker as well as the unfair backlash to the objecting abstainer. A cigarette doesn’t define a person, not does the absence of the habit make anyone a “better” member of society. Beyond that, how about we non-smokers make a deal with our puffing buddies – we’ll let you smoke all you want as long as you promise to keep it in your car, your home, and on your property and out of the general population. Then, when we come over to visit you, not only will we not say a word to you for lighting up on your turf (how can we?), but we’ll even find for you a cute little plaque to boast on your kitchen wall jokingly warning all who enter to put up or shut up. Hey, even non-smokers can be diplomatic, and funny to boot.
– Column by Elizabeth Geris