THIS COLUMN WAS going to be about cigars and about how people who smoke cigars in public are about as considerate of others as people who walk their dogs on your lawn. This was going to be a stinging indictment of cigar smoking in public, trenchantly argued, wittily presented and so powerful in the force of its logic that even those boors who smoke cigars in sealed office buildings would instantly recognize the error of their ways.
I was going to march out the victims of cigar smokers, the people who get terrible migraines when they breathe cigar smoke, the people who get nauseous, the people who get asthma attacks. And I was going to tell you what Dr. Alfred Munzer of the D.C. Lung Association said about how cigars are worse than cigarettes because the cigarette smoker inhales the toxic fumes he is creating while the cigar smoker doesn't and instead blows them out into the room for the rest of us to breathe.
I was going to tell you that the upshot of this is that the rest of us find ourselves breathing cadmium, ammonia, benzopyrene, carbon monoxide and nicotine, not to mention methane, formaldehyde and acrolein, which just in case you didn't know it, is a very powerful irritant. I was going to explain scientifically how nicotine causes the blood vessels to constrict, which is something that triggers migraines, and I was going to tell you about the woman I know who is going crazy because the men around her where she works continue to smoke cigars even though she has told them it makes her physically ill.
That column would have marshalled the legal arguments about my rights as a reformed smoker (is there anyone worse?) to have clean air versus the rights of the smoker to have his fix. The natural condition of man is to have clean air, not smoky air, and those who pollute shouldn't be allowed to do so at my expense. But that column would have told you that's not the way it works. I know of a Washington woman who couldn't stand smoke and who asked her employer to provide a smoke-free environment. She ended up getting fired when that arrangement went up in, ahem, smoke, and she was ordered to report to an office where people smoked, and she refused.
I was going to tell you all about my interview with Prof. John Banzhaf at Action on Smoking and Health, who says that the Civil Aeronautics Board has insisted that airlines segregate cigarette smokers and has ruled that no passengers should be required to breathe pipe or cigar smoke. Banzhaf says employes are successfully bringing administrative actions to get smoke-free working conditions and more and more public and private organizations are segregating cafeterias and workplaces into smoking and nonsmoking areas.
Banzhaf thinks the woman who gets migraines might get relief by bringing legal action against the cigar smokers for battery, negligence and assault -- just as she would if the men had discharged tear gas in her face. He thinks she would be successful in establishing negligence, for example, since the court would look at the justice of both sides and find someone who is literally being made sick by the conduct and on the other side is someone engaging in that conduct merely for his own amusement.
Banzhaf says there are a number of analogous situations such as a person who would like to play loud rock music in an office, or burn incense, or as he put it, "work in the raw. Those are all things that might give somebody some satisfaction, yet those are all things where the court would say you can do those things as long as they don't affect the persons around you." I was going to tell you all that.
And I was going to tell you what Banshaf told me about a case known as Shimp vs. New Jersey Bell, which involved a Bell employe who was very allergic to smoke and who has obtained an injunction prohibiting all smoking in her office. One of the things that really impressed the judge was that New Jersey Bell prohibits smoking around its computers because the smoke damages the computers functions. Well, when the judge heard that, says Banzhaf, he looked down from the bench and said, "Well, I think you can do the same thing for employes who are damaged by tobacco smoke."
I was going to tell you all of those things in that elegant column I mentioned at the start and, as a hedge against the computer technology that has invaded the newsroom this week, I wrote that elegant column early and stored it in the computer. I stored it in my personal file along with the grocery list, just to make sure nobody could get to it and destroy it or peek. I figured no matter how disastrous the transition from typewriters to computers might be this week, I'd at least have a column for Wednesday.
That's what I thought. But it seems some wise guy came in here over the weekend and accidentally purged out of the computer system everything that everybody had stored in their personal files. Some people lost telephone lists, others lost stories and, I bet, still others lost their Novels in Progress, not to mention my grocery list and my column, which presumably exists now only in the form of desultory electrons.
Everyone is trying to be a good sport about this, but not everyone had to come up with a column for today. This episode is driving me to the conclusion that computers can be as hazardous to my future as cigars are to my health. So I have an idea. I'm going to propose that the cigar smokers in the newsroom be segregated in the computer room and, who knows what might happen? But I don't want to be accused of harboring a grudge against the computer. That, clearly, is not the wave of the future.
So when I drop that idea into the suggestion box, I'm going to sign Richard Cohen's name.