While watching reruns of the television classic Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr, it never ceases to amaze me where the show’s myriad characters "light up." From today’s perspective at least, they smoked cigarettes in the strangest of places. Apparently in the serene 1950s, it was perfectly acceptable to puff away during an elevator ride, in a taxicab, and—believe it or not—in a hospital room as well. Just this past week I accompanied a patient to New York City’s leading cancer hospital and was pleased to see signs posted outside the building prohibiting smoking. Until very recently, the sight of hospital staff, including doctors and nurses, smoking by its entrances seemed downright surreal. It was, after all, a cancer hospital.
I’m not a proponent of the Nanny State. I fully support smokers’ rights to engage in their poisonous pleasures until death do them part. However, I realize now more than ever that their right to smoke does not include transmitting their second-hand smoke to innocent bystanders. That is, impinging on others’ rights to breathe clean—or relatively clean—air. So, if you smoke and can contain the habit to your little sliver of the world, more power to you. If you cannot, then you’re blowing smoke—really—when it comes to talking about your “rights.”
When I was a high school student in the late 1970s, my peers and I rode in what were called “special buses.” They were leased city buses and it was—even back then—against the law to smoke on them. Nevertheless, the bus drivers didn’t enforce the law. It didn’t matter to them that our buses to and from school were more often than not packed like the proverbial sardines in a can. We’d invariably arrive at school in the early morning, and back home in the middle of afternoon, reeking of second-hand smoke. Our clothes, fingers, and hair stunk to high heaven. The smoking class regularly assaulted the non-smoking class on these always-disagreeable bus rides. Breathing in all that second-hand smoke, and stinking of it, to begin and end each school day couldn’t have been very healthy.
What’s with smokers, too, who think nothing of throwing their butts on the ground. Does that not constitute littering? The telltale evidence of smokers—who are by and large are compelled nowadays to take their habits to the great outdoors—is a surfeit of discarded cigarette butts in front of places of business and office buildings. It’s a new wrinkle in a new age, but it sure beats riding those special buses that weren’t really special at all, and having untold minutes subtracted from our lives for doing something we just couldn't avoid—something scientifically known as "breathing."