Jewish World Review August 20, 2002 / 12 Elul 5762
Bid farewell to the Cigarette Century
Some of my smoking pals in New York City feel outraged and betrayed at the apparent perfidy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-smoking crusade.
Now, at a time when the city is already hot enough to melt a landlord's heart, he drops this bombshell: Bloomberg is asking the City Council to extend New York's antismoking law to include all restaurants and bars.
Boom! Moans and groans arose from the ranks of those who are still killing themselves by cigarette. Ah, the treachery, they moaned. The deceit! The tyranny! The invasion of rights! The "nanny-ism!"
But, not me. As a smoker and frequent New York visitor, I sympathize with my smoking pals now driven from yet another haunt into the streets like coughing, hacking beggars. But I also know when we smokers are licked.
As the smoke clears in one public place and office after another across the nation, I can see clearly now that the end is drawing near for what I call "the Cigarette Century."
That's the period between the rise of the popularity of cigarettes a hundred years ago and the period of its forced decline now.
A century ago, cigarettes were banned outright in several states. The bans were dropped, one-by-one, as popular demand grew.
Cigarette smoking received a major boost during World War I, when cigarettes were distributed free to soldiers. They kept buying them when they returned home.
Until recently, it would have been unimaginable -- inconceivable! -- for politicians to declare an end to the smoke that has turned numerous Big Apple pubs, nightclubs and restaurants into backdrops for great poets, artists, authors, journalists, executives and lap dancers.
In saloon culture, a cigarette was more than just a smoke. It was an ingredient that, along with agreeable companionship and a glass of your favorite beverage, formed the recipe for a way of life. A jazz club without cigarette smoke, for example, seemed about as likely as a pizza without cheese.
But, since the "Just Say No" '80s, a new awareness of the dangers of second-hand smoke and the rise of a new fitness-conscious generation of young professionals, the anti-smoking forces have become downright overwhelming.
I can remember when you could smoke in movie theaters in Manhattan. Those days are long gone. The country's culture has shifted like a giant, rumbling tectonic plate in the crust of the earth along the fault lines of flaming tobacco.
By the end of the century, overall smoking rates had dropped among Americans over the age of 18 to only 23.3 percent -- from 41.9 percent in 1965 -- according to federal health statistics.
With numbers like that, along with changed attitudes, it's no wonder that politicians like Bloomberg are no longer afraid to wage war against smoking, even in New York City, the global center of cosmopolitan cool.
Earlier this year, Bloomberg won state approval to raise taxes enough to make a pack of cigarettes cost $7.50 in the city. He got away with it, despite some howls from the tobacco lobby and pro-smoking groups. The voters wanted another Rudolph Giuliani, a man bold enough to crack down on jaywalkers in midtown Manhattan. Now that Bloomberg is also force-feeding the voters what he thinks is good for them, New Yorkers do appear to have another Rudy.
I surrender. It's hard to wage much of a fight for the right to do something that you know is going to help to kill you.
Already I live with the shame that the end of the Cigarette Century brings upon us holdouts. I am the cigarette-smoking equivalent of the notch-baby -- after hiding my smoking from my parents throughout my teen years, I now hide it from my own kid!
Now 13, my son seems to have no interest in smoking. Maybe he has more good sense about it than I did as a teen, when I wanted to look cool. I hope so. Nine out of 10 smokers start in their teen years. Get your kids through those years without puffing and they're probably in the clear.
"You probably don't think cigarettes look cool, do you?" I asked him.
"No, I think cigarette smoking does look cool," he informed me. "But, I'm still not going to do it."
Way to go, kid. I want you to live. You make me want to live a while longer, too.
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