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An old colleague, basketball executive, author and many times Boston Marathoner Pat Williams, used to open speeches by saying:
“I’m going to speak first to those of you who are smokers, in as much as you have less time to live than the rest of us.”
And today I am addressing you smokers.
But this isn’t a pray-for-you evangelism about the evils of inhaling the incineration of an unctuous weed whose fumes are so toxic that they do nothing but spread death through your body.
This isn’t about the no-longer-so-small fortune you will waste on a habit that controls your life.
This isn’t about blowing smoke up anywhere.
This is about what I see you do all the time, which is to pollute not only your lungs but the world belonging to all of us with more than your smoke.
On a recent Friday afternoon I was entering the Shelbyville Post Office at the same time as a man was trying to get the final two, life-sustaining drags off a cigarette before opening the door into the no-smoking sanctuary.
And you know what happened next:
He flicked his cigarette onto the bricks outside the door and walked through, leaving the refuse of his addiction in my path, a deposit for a public employee to retrieve.
We exchanged glances, and I choked back my typical terse torment for an act so overtly irresponsible. Gratefully, once inside, he went away from the window, and I didn’t have to stare at his back and smell his cologne of nicotine while I waited in line.
His second-hand smoke barely had cleared my lungs, not 10 minutes later, I was driving west on Washington Street, when the driver of a car to my right decided she was finished with her cigarette and did what millions do every day: She flicked it out of the window into the street.
These two people – not kids, mind you, much more senior than junior – egregiously exercised what every smoker appears to feel is his or her ordained right: to use the earth as an ashtray.
How many times have you seen someone at a stoplight drop a burning bud on the ground?
How many times on a sidewalk have you seen a smoker pass an ashtray in favor of sullying the gutter?
How many times have you seen a little pile of finished blunts piled near a stoplight, dumped from an ashtray into the street?
How many entryways to no-smoking facilities have you seen littered with smokers’ excrements (not to mention the clouds of their final exhales)?
I’m guessing the answer to each is something approaching infinity.
And then this recent news: A tragic wreck that killed horses in a trailer was caused by a cigarette being tossed into the trailer.
In a day when we debate not only the merits and advisability of using tobacco products, when some of us argue about whether businesses should subject us to smoking, when we try to avoid second-hand fumes, the greatest daily infringement on all of us is this insulting habit of littering.
It’s there. It has piled up, languishing uncontrolled before our misting eyes, having risen from a history of acceptance and been passed through generations of bad example and intemperance.
Take a deep breath and recall what life was like in the 1950s, when lighting up and puffing away were an accepted part of the world, prevalent in just about every corner of our environment other than churches and schools. I guess God and the principal were strong enough deterrents.
TV commercials for cigarette companies were as commonplace as those for automobiles and dishwashing detergent.
Ricky Ricardo would puff away while arguing with Lucy. Andy Taylor even stepped out on the front porch for a smoke, probably because Aunt Bea would’ve killed him indoors.
Click the remote control to the 1960s, the image of American smokers began to diminish when the surgeon general linked smoking to lung cancer and banned ads in broadcast media. Marketing of tobacco went to sports events – the Winston Cup, the Marlboro 500 – and print, but it didn’t go away.
As medical reports, medical experts and mortality taught us all the difficult lessons of what tobacco can do to kill us, the habit began to fall from vogue and gradually be exorcised from pop culture.
But it never went away. Battle lines between those who would not smoke or used to smoke drew firm against those who insisted they didn’t care, couldn’t quit or were some form of immortal.
But the one lingering issue that affects all of us, that has not an absolute anything to do with living or dying, is the infringement of the smoker’s garbage.
The irony is that about the time that cigarette smoking started to wiggle under the public’s microscope, there also was rampant campaign and lawmaking against what was dubbed “littering.”
Signs were posted to alert everyone to crime. Fines were established.
Little plastic bags were handed out in schools and churches for people to put in their cars to collect litter rather than – yes – just chucking it out the window.
To be called a “litterbug” was just as bad as being labeled a liberal or a liar.
Remember that commercial in which a Native American sees a beautiful stream turned into a pool of pollution, leaving him to shed one large tear? It was moving.
On Friday, that was me.
Some people have kicked the habit of smoking.
Not enough have kicked the habit of littering.
And for you smokers who also litter: Listen up, because your time is short.