TWICE IN ONE DAY, the tobacco lobby comes at me in the newspapers. The first time is in a letter to The New York Times, the second time in a letter to The Washington Star. The first letter says there is no health reason to ban the public smoking of cigarettes. The second letter says the same thing. It makes me think. It makes me think of Laura Kiernan.
Laura Kiernan is the reporter for The Washington Post who covers D.C. Superior Court and other matters of legal interest. She also sits next to me. She also smokes. I used to smoke, but I have been a nonsmoker for so long that I have forgotten how important it is to those who still smoke (a pity on them) and how, when I did smoke, I considered people who tried to interfere with my smoking to be kooks, crazies, nuts - the sort of people who eat birdseed and get married naked in the park.
Anyway, not a day goes by that I do not want a cigarette. Not a day goes by that the urge for one does not come from somewhere in my memory bank. Sometimes, I get this urge when I see that sexy woman with the broad shoulders in the Winston ads, and sometimes it is when I finish a meal and think a smoke would be just dandy. But always it is when Laura Kiernan returns from the Superior Court - which she covers in award-winning fashion - and lights up one of her cigarettes. I say nothing.
I say nothing even though she smokes like crazy. The closer she is to deadline, the more she smokes. I understand. Before I became a perfect person and stopped smoking, I, too, used to smoke my way to deadline. I, too, was weak and needed cigarettes in order to write. I know how she needs them. In fact, the more she smokes, the more I know. The smoke goes up my nose and soon I am needing a cigarette myself. When this happens, I get up and walk away.
But this is a problem. It is a problem for me and for others. All over the country, cities and states are either considering or passing laws banning or severely restricting public smoking. I call these Laura Kiernan laws. There is one under consideration in Washington that would ban smoking in public work places - like the newsroom of The Washington Post. This law would apply to you-know-who.
I know what I can do. I can either move my desk or I could get up and stare down at Laura Kiernan and make her feel guilty. When I smoked cigarettes, anyone could make me feel guilty. I was always apologizing, feeling like a walking steel plant - a one-man polluter. Other people were inhaling my smoke, going off to far corners of the room and dying. Because of me. I could lay that number on Laura Kiernan and she would look at me with that sweet, innocent, Irish face, and she would crumple. She would take her cigarette and twist it into the ashtray and then she would turn to her typewriter and go to pieces. I say nothing.
I say nothing because I am not sure I have a right to say anything. Of course, I sometimes ask her to move her ashtray, which she does, but I am not sure I can ask her not smoke. I cam worried about people running to the government when they get annoyed at somthing - banning this and outlawing that and turning the whole world into a version of those kitchens you see in the Lysol commercials - large and squeaky clean without a germ of any kind allowed. Still, I am told this is a matter of health. For health, you can do things. For my health, Laura Kiernan will have to kick her habit.
So when the letters from the Tobacco Institute were published in the papers, I called and asked to see the spokesman for the tobacco industry. He would tell me what to do about Laura Kiernan. He would not. The president is a very busy man. His assistant, though, Walker Merryman, would see me. Merryman, of course, smokes. He is very nice about it. He asks, and I say "Of course," and then he does - constantly.
I am chuckling. This is like visiting the Flat Earth Society. The Tobacco Institute doesn't even accept the findings of the surgeon general's report linking cigarette smoking with cancer. Merryman is smoking. I am taking notes. What about this Laura Kiernan thing, I ask. Notebook poised. He hands me literature. I read it. My eyes start to pop. There is no evidence that smoking is harmful to anyone other than the smoker - i.e., Laura Kiernan.
The literature keeps coming. Merryman reels off the names of cancer specialists, physicians, researchers. He gives me the names of medical journals and two articles written by Dr. Michael Halberstam, a Washington physician and syndicated columnist. I call Halberstam. Is this true? It is, he says. There is no evidence. He cites the studies, but I am no longer listening. I am thinking of something else.
I am thinking of Laura Kiernan.