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Where There's Smoke, There's Ire

Huffing and Puffing Over Guests Who Light Up

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page H01

We used to have a very tolerant policy toward smokers in our house. Even though my husband and I have never smoked, we would not banish guests to the backyard to huddle around a beer bottle full of butts. They were welcome to light up in our living room, where we provided ashtrays. Overnight visitors could have a smoke with their morning coffee without getting a lecture.

But two recent visits by chain-smoking houseguests left us fuming -- and reevaluating our lenient hospitality. One guest stubbed out more than 100 cigarettes over a weekend visit. Lying in bed, we could smell tobacco circulating through our heating vents. So could our teenage son, who had heard plenty of anti-smoking lectures in school. The time had come for us to craft a new domestic policy on smoking.

Many parents today grew up in an era when Mom and Dad smoked in the car with the windows closed while kids bounced around without seat belts. Porcelain ashtrays were given as wedding gifts. College yearbooks featured snapshots of undergrads smoking at proms and football games. Seats in airplanes and waiting rooms had built-in ashtrays.

"When I grew up, my parents had a crystal box of cigarettes on the dining room table and a big ashtray with a teardrop-shaped crystal thing to stub out the butts," says Luc Sante, author of "No Smoking: A Social Retrospective on the Cigarette," a new book packaged in a box shaped like a giant pack of cigarettes. Sante and his wife are reformed smokers who keep an ashtray on their upstate New York porch for the few friends who still smoke.

Millions of Americans quit smoking in the 1980s and '90s after a drumbeat of bad news about smoking-related illnesses and second-hand smoke, plus the advent of smoke-free offices and restaurants. In 1993, Bill and Hillary Clinton banned smoking at the White House.

Despite the negative publicity, 22 percent of Americans over 18 still smoke, according to U.S. government statistics. Some of these people are our friends and relatives. So if you invite them over, should you write "Smokers Not Welcome" on invitations, stitch "No Smoking" needlepoint pillows or equip a guest room with Nicorette gum?

The best answers for hosts and guests, say social arbiters, are to be considerate of others, and be upfront.

Manners maven Letitia Baldrige says hosts need to be sympathetic to smoking's addictive nature. If you have to ask dinner guests to step outside to smoke, she says it's best not to heap on comments about how much smoking upsets you or makes you sick. "There is no need to make them feel guilty. There are enough things to feel guilty about these days."

She also says overnight guests should be forthright about confessing their love of smoking, and hosts should be honest about their expectations. "Do not invite people to stay overnight without mentioning at the time of the invitation, 'I hope this won't change your plans, but we don't smoke in our house.' "

According to "21st-Century Etiquette," by New York society author Charlotte Ford, the once rhetorical question "Do you mind if I smoke?" has become "a requirement, not a polite gesture." She writes, "Smokers should be accustomed to having a cigarette only in designated smoking zones so as not to inconvenience others."

"I get so many letters about the smoking issue. It creates a lot of tension," says Amy Dickinson, author of the "Ask Amy" syndicated advice column. "During the holidays, when people gather for family visits, smoking is the thing that often tips the balance into unpleasantness."

Dickinson, who enjoys a cigarette once in a while herself, says most smokers bend over backward not to offend. "They have been beaten senseless about the rules." At a recent dinner party in her Chicago home, friends were invited to smoke in her living room but preferred to gather in the kitchen around an open window.

The debate goes on at gatherings on Silver Spring decks, in Leesburg living rooms and on Dupont Circle balconies.

"I am very self-conscious about smoking inside, particularly around people who do not smoke," says Terry Vines, a Petworth resident who works for a nonprofit. "If I went to a party, even if I saw other people smoking, I would still probably go outside, regardless of the weather. I know it sounds strange, but it stinks and I don't want it in my face, and I extend the courtesy to others as well."

Ives Law, a telecommunications manager from Northeast often finds himself in a gaggle of guests puffing away outside. "I try and take my cue from what is going on in a room when I walk in," says Law. "If there are no ashtrays around and nobody is smoking, I get the message."

Many say they encounter fewer and fewer smokers. "I don't think anyone has ever smoked in my home," says Karin Brown, a Great Falls mother of two. "We've had lots of parties and nobody has ever asked for an ashtray."

Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner recently attended a party of all women at which three guests lit up. "I was very surprised that there were that many smokers and that the hostess did not ask them to go outside," says Kempner, who left early because her eyes were burning.

Ina Garten, of Barefoot Contessa cookbook fame, doesn't make a fuss if someone smokes at dinner parties at her East Hampton home. "I want my friends to feel welcome to do anything they want at my house. That's why I invited them in the first place."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company