Leave Smokers Alone, For Cryin’ Out Loud

By Beth Quinn

I recall with some nostalgia the days when I could shop at the Grand Union while smoking; when I could sit at my desk and smoke, even as my asthmatic co-worker retreated to the ladies room to take a few hits off her nebulizer; when I could light up on an airplane, the fresh-air crowd be damned.

As regulations and public opinion turned against me, I railed against my employer for shoving me outside to stand in the cold on the loading dock, breathing in the stench of garbage even as I sucked in the stench of burning tobacco.

I bitterly complained about pharmaceutical companies that developed half-assed, don’t-work quit-smoking products and then charged as much for them as I paid for cigarettes. I wasn’t going to get sucked into THAT scam, I vowed.

I decried a government that taxed my habit to fill its coffers on the back of my addiction.  I don’t for a moment believe the state of New York or the feds had my best interests at heart when they began to systematically make it both more expensive and less convenient for me to smoke. No one who stands to profit by a person’s bad habits sincerely wants that person to quit.

Still, the cumulative effect of it all was to … make me quit smoking. And I confess that I’m most grateful for that. After 40 years of smoking, I quit 3 years, 11 months ago – on Oct. 24, 2005 at 11 p.m.

It now seems preposterous that I smoked. What a crazy habit. It seems bizarre that it was tolerated indoors and that it is even now tolerated near building entrances where people have to make their way through the unhealthy haze to get inside.

Yes, yes, fine. Smoking is bad. The healthy people got to me. I’m done. I walk two miles a day, and I go to Zumba twice a week where I do a lot of vigorous aerobic dancing. Great, fine, wonderful. I am woman, hear me breathe. I will never smoke again.


The City of New York is about to go too far. The health commissioner, Thomas Farley, announced a couple of weeks ago that he’s considering a ban on smoking in city parks and on beaches.

Don’t do it, Tommy. This isn’t about people’s health anymore. This is now punitive. It is too much in loco parentis. Smokers aren’t your kids, and it’s not your job to make them stop jumping on the bed even though they might fall down and break their necks.

It’s a big sky out there. A smoker in the park isn’t going to give the guy on the next bench a heart attack. Really.

As for the beach, I must confess that one of my greatest pleasures in life was to walk across the warm sand carrying my beach chair, a towel, a cold drink and a book. I’d settle myself close to the breaking waves, my face to the sun. I’d open my book and then … I’d light a cigarette.

Even as I write these words, I breathe deeply and pretend it is cigarette smoke I’m inhaling. It is the only scene in my imagination where smoking still seems like a wonderful idea.

They say that, when you quit smoking, you must quit in all the trigger situations – when your feet first hit the floor in the morning, after a meal, with a drink, while driving, in the shower. (Yes, I confess it. I smoked in the shower.) Perhaps I still enjoy the smell of other people’s cigarettes on a beach because I quit in October and never fully became a non-smoker in the summer sun.

I know a woman who quit smoking while living in Manhattan. She’d sold her car because who needs a car in the city, really? So she never quit smoking as a driver. About 20 years later – 20 years as a non-smoker! – she bought a home in Jeffersonville, then bought a car so she could get there on weekends.

The first thing she did when she got behind the wheel? She asked her son for a cigarette. She didn’t smoke it. In fact, she was shocked to find herself holding it in her hand. But she realized she was still a smoking driver.

That’s how I feel on the beach, but I suppose my personal pleasure in the smell of cigarettes at the ocean is beside the point. It really is a big sky. A smoker a few blankets down is not going to cause anyone to have an asthma attack or develop lung cancer or grow a second head.

Tommy, leave the smokers alone in the open air. If you feel you really must be a do-gooder and meddle in people’s lives, I have two other suggestions.

That tax on soda that Obama suggested? Go for it. Obesity kills far more people than cigarettes and, frankly, I think every fat kid has a criminal for a parent. The same parent who’s screaming about a smoker harming his kid in the park is the one who’s filling that kid’s gut with soda pop and potato chips.

And if you really want to ban something at the beach, how about boom boxes? I’d wager that, for most of us, noise pollution has ruined far more peaceful days at the beach than a bit of smoke rising on the breeze.

Beth can be reached at beth@ZestofOrange.com.


5 Responses to “Leave Smokers Alone, For Cryin’ Out Loud”

  1. ncangelone Says:

    OK, I am a non smoker, never smoked, age 46. So yes I am a little biased. I do agree with the underlying theme here that its just ridiculouse that our government has to legislate behavior. Like cell phones in cars….why do we have to actually pass a law that tells people that texting while driving…is now illegal? Have we become that stupid as a society? However, I live in a beach community (clearwater fl), and I will be the first in line to sign anything that would agree with making smoking in the parks, especially the beaches, illegal. And why? Not the fumes, even though they do carry pretty far on the beaches with the breezes….but the garbage that is left behind. I’m not saying I know this to be a fact, but it seem has always seemed to me since childhood that smokers believe that a beach makes a perfect ashtray. Its revolting, to be quite honest. And maybe that is one of the reasons why at this point big brothers is stepping in – to once again legislate behavior that should be practiced – ie – not leaving your garbage behind. Just my thoughts.

  2. BethQuinn Says:

    Ncangelone is right about smokers thinking the beach is their personal ashtray. I agree, too, that smokers in general are slobs with their cigarette butts. It makes me nuts when I see a cigarette coming flying out a car window.

    Maybe, then, we need stronger litter bug enforcement. I wasn’t a big fan of Rudy Giuliani, but his crack-down on quality of life crimes worked well in NYC. I also like the parks where they issue you a garbage bag when you enter and enforce a bring in/take out rule.

    Beth Quinn

  3. LeeAgain Says:

    If a cocaine addict checks into a rehab center and stops using the drug, why should it be okay for him/her to go to the beach and snort it there? Nicotine is a powerfully addictive drug and it does as much harm to the human body on the beach as it does indoors, in doorways, etc. Besides (and more to the point of your column) what about all those people who go to the seashore to enjoy the smell of the salt air? Who wants to drive 2 hours or more to smell cigarettes?
    Sorry, Beth, but I’ve got to disagree with you on this one. The world can live without tobacco – anywhere. And this is being written by someone who, after 37 years of non-smoking, still gets a craving for a cigarette every time she drives the NYS Thruway between New Paltz and Newburgh. Habits die hard.
    Ideally, this will be a non-issue for the next generation. If we never become addicted, we don’t miss that first cigarette of the morning with coffee. Or the cigarette with the drink at the bar. Or the after-sex smoke.

  4. merleab Says:

    Hi Beth,
    As usually happens, I completely agree with you. As someone who smoked for 49 years and who has been a non-smoker for a little over 5 years, I do think that people have the right to smoke or not as long as they are not hurting someone else. (I just can’t figure out how, in this economy and with all the taxes, anyone can afford to smoke.) In any case, smoking in the open air at parks and beaches can’t possibly hurt someone else and if that’s your vice of choice, go for it. The NYC health commissioner should spend his time lobbying for universal health care. That would truly make a positive difference in public health.

  5. bess Says:

    Even if smoking in open-air areas DOES hurt other people a little, it doesn’t hurt their physical health any more than vehement anti-smokers’ whining is hurting everyone else’s mental health. I (having quit smoking 3+ years ago as well) might end up having a heart attack just from the frustration of walking behind slow/obese people on sidewalks and/or from the anxiety of finding enough patience in myself to deal with stupid people. Who will conveniently, legally remove those stressors from my environment? There are plenty of unregulated physical/mental health “hazards” and nuisances out there — smoking just happens to be a nice, obvious, easy one.

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