The Outcasts of the ‘90s: Smokers in the Workplace : Health: Across U.S., puffers have been put out on the street for their habit. ‘You feel like a pariah,’ says one.
There they are, the new street people, standing outside buildings at all hours, no matter what the weather. Neither rain nor snow nor scorching heat can keep them off the sidewalks. There they are, right next to the winos.
They are the smokers, the 1 in 4 American adults who still have that nicotine urge, who need to take time out from work each day for a quick smoke or three.
Time was they could smoke at their desks, in the days when a cigarette in an ashtray was very much a part of the workscape. But that is ancient history. In the last decade, they have slowly been banished from the office, sent off unceremoniously to the street as the anti-smoker siren has sounded ever louder. And the campaign against them is on a roll as never before.
“Sometimes, I feel like a homeless child,” said Floyd Davis as he took a smoke break outside his office at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District.
Davis has plenty of company. Walk down most any street in any U.S. city and the scene never varies: Smokers standing in clusters on the sidewalk, smokers huddled in a corner when the weather turns foul, smokers forming a gantlet at the front door of thousands of offices. And, in their wake, they leave a pile of crushed cigarette butts as evidence of their communal gatherings.
“You feel like a pariah,” said Marylyne Goldstock as she lit a cigarette Thursday, which, incidentally, was the day of the yearly Great American Smokeout.
The smokeout--a whole day devoted to stamping out their personal habit--is just one more annoyance for a population already bedeviled by an onslaught of social, legal and medical pressures.
Smokers, to be sure, are the outcasts of the ‘90s, often shunted off to spots where they will not be seen, banned from places where they were once free to light up.
“When it’s raining, we have to go to the garage,” said Jennifer Blackmore as she sat on a bench outside a tony Century City office building, smoking a cigarette. “They don’t let us smoke in the lobby anymore. They took out the ashtrays and put in planters.” Throughout the country, the anti-smoking forces are holding sway as never before over elected officials. The tobacco industry has been on the defensive since 1964, when the surgeon general released his landmark warning that smoking was hazardous to one’s health. But the move to ban smoking in public places has increased since the federal Environmental Protection Agency reported in January that passive smoke--smoke from someone else’s cigarette--was killing more than 50,000 people a year.
According to the Tobacco Institute, a Washington-based lobbying group, legislatures in 46 states have passed laws governing smoking. All 50 states have local laws governing where people can smoke and where they cannot.
In California, about 250 cities have anti-smoking ordinances, with more signing on. The state’s laws are becoming so strict that, beginning next year, state prisoners in California will not be allowed one of the few pleasures left them--smoking in their cells.
A bill introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) this month would ban smoking inside all public buildings--defined as being accessible to 10 or more people a week--or limit it to separately ventilated rooms. This month, the attorneys general of 16 states recommended that smoking be banned in all fast-food chains.
There are exceptions, but only a few. In October, the Simi Valley City Council went against the grain when it refused to toughen its anti-smoking law.
But, the trend is definitely toward the likes of politically correct Davis and Thousand Oaks, which have enacted ordinances stating that smokers are not only banned from smoking indoors, they must also be at least 20 feet from a doorway. Which leaves smokers in something of a fix.
“Little by little, we’re a dying breed--no pun intended,” said John Wheeler as he stood on a heating grate in Denver while puffing on a cigarette recently.
In Seattle, Babette Reyor, who works for a shrimp importer, said she knew things were going to change in her office when the boss quit smoking. Now, she is one of the few who continues to smoke, but she has to do it on the street.
“What I get tired of is the fact that you feel like a second-class citizen,” she said. “Everywhere you go, even in smoking sections in restaurants, you feel you’re really imposing on people. And I’m really a sensitive smoker. I try to be very aware of nonsmokers.” In Atlanta, office manager Mary Dillon retreats to an open courtyard at Peachtree Center to get her daily nicotine hit.
“They make you feel like you’re the scum of the earth,” Dillon said. “They make you feel like you’re out there doing cocaine or drugs or something.”
But there is another side to this: Beleaguered smokers are seeking each other out, using cigarettes as a source of kinship. On streets across America, smokers can be seen lighting up and striking up conversations with fellow outcasts, often with little regard for status.
“When I first started working here, I had to seek out the smokers,” said Kathryn Harvison as she puffed on her cigarette in Century City. “And those are pretty much who I hang out with at work. You spend your breaks together, and, then eventually, your lunches.”
Another who holds that view is Susan Forney, a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoker who is editor of Smoking Singles Magazine in New York. She said there is something to be said, especially in New York, of connecting with a fellow smoker.
“It’s bitter cold, you’re standing out there bundled up with your gloves on, smoking, and, naturally, you will fall into conversation with another person,” she said.
She said that as far as she knew, Smoking Singles could not take credit for any marriages--yet.
Forney said she began her magazine in 1990, when she kept seeing personal ads that said “nonsmokers only.” She said that as a smoker, the last thing she wanted to do was meet someone, only to be dressed down for her habit.
“It launches the whole thing off on the wrong foot,” she said.
The smokers’ rights response to all the new laws has been to make a fuss, but not much of one. Jose Rodriguez, founder of the Las Vegas-based United Smokers Assn., said it is time to fight back, that the anti-smoking crowd had gotten too zealous for its own good. If smokers do not counterattack, he envisions a time when smoking will be banned altogether.
“Our whole intent from the beginning was to ensure that smokers had as many rights as nonsmokers,” he said. “We’re not some crazies headquartered in Beirut. We just want what’s fair.”
In Rodriguez’s view, the recent laws are the work of a “core of do-gooders, not only for smoking but anything else that is politically correct.”
He said smokers should point out that they pay $12 billion a year in taxes, a figure that is sure to go up if the Clinton Administration has its way. He also issued a warning of what might happen if smoking were banned completely.
“The last time they tried to ban something on a national basis, it led to organized crime,” he said, referring to Prohibition.
The smokers have a friend in restaurateurs, who maintain that the smoking bans are hurting their businesses severely.
“The smokers we used to see frequently, we just don’t see anymore,” said Christine Splichal, the owner of Pinot Bistro in Studio City and Patina restaurant on Melrose Avenue.
Another man working for the rights of smokers is Ted Hall, who is trying to start his own airline--the Freedom Air Smokers Club--in which everyone gets to smoke. He said he looked around and saw that smokers were quickly losing all their rights.
“It’s wrong and how we got to this position, I don’t know,” said Hall, who lives in the San Diego County community of Ramona. “I guess it’s the snowballing of public opinion that is saying: ‘Smokers, you’re outta here.’ ”
That, in turn, has led to some changes in the workplace.
Davis, smoking in front of the water district building, said he believed that smoking sometimes determined who would be promoted.
“I think it’s becoming a problem,” he said.
Hall agreed, saying he believed many company executives--as well as those who aspire to their jobs--are afraid to admit that they smoke.
“I think the business executive is hiding out,” Hall said. “Now, there is the connotation that if you smoke, you are a lowlife.”
Also contributing to this story were Times researchers Doug Conner in Seattle, Lianne Hart in Houston, Ann Rovin in Denver, Tracy Shryer in Chicago, Edith Stanley in Atlanta and Anna Virtue in Miami.