I am, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, a passive smoker. I did not mean to be one. My parents did not raise me to be one. But there you are. The New England Journal of Medicine says I am one, and it ought to know.
What I meant to be was a plain old non-smoker. It fits my self-image better. It fits my habits better.
I am, you see, one of the lucky people who choked on the first green-tipped, personally labeled, Sweet 16 cigarette that never touched my lips in 1957. I count his as a piece of biological luck, not unlike my inability to get drunk.
Years ago, I discovered that I fell asleep before I ever found the right lampshade for my head. So, I end up dozing instead of drunk, the way I end up coughing instead of cancerous.
It is not my virtue by my body chemistry that keeps me from failling down the path of assorted evils. If my jaw would only lock at the sight of assorted chocolates, I would be perfect.
But this morning I am in no position to gloat. Two men from the University of California, San Diego, studied men and women at work. Some of the 2,000 worked in smoky places and some in smoke-free places. Now, the researchers have published the first study that proves what we knew all along, deep down in our lungs: non-smokers are getting zonked by the smokers at work.
Prof. James White and Dr. Herman Froeb put it more carefully in their paper. The way they figured it, non-smokers have about the same amount of small airways impairment as people who smoke up to about 11 cigarettes a day. Sounding like the surgeon general's warning, they wrote that "chronic exposure to tobacoo smoke in the work environment is deleterious to the non-smoker."
Informally, Prof. White said simply, "We know that if a person works around another smoke for a period of time, he will experience lung damage. Now whether it will impair him or cause emphysema, we don't know. But who wants it?"
Not I, said the litte red hen. But, at this very moment, I am sitting here at my desk passively smoking. The man behind me, who is otherwise a charming neighbor, smokes cigars. They are not really offensive, he has explained to me patiently and in some detail, because they are good cigars. It's the cheap cigars that smell, he says, pointing one stinking stogie at another. I fail to make this class distinction.
Three yards away, the environmental reporter sits attached to his pipe. The smoke that surrounds it would make the EPA inspector condemn a plant. "It is," he admits, puffing throughfully, "a contradiction."
All around me are cigarettes whose smoke is mysteriously attached to my magnetic personality. I am convinced that whenever I change desks in this city room, the air currents in my office shift and I am once again drifting in the Smoke Stream.
My situation isn't the worst by far. I have a friend who goes home every night and washes that Marlboro man right out of her hair. I have another who actually goes into the garage for a breath of fresh air.
I sympathize with smokers, although I no longer buy them ashtrays. (I have a friend who uses my daughter's doll-house bathtub for his butts, but I promised noto to tell a soul.) I imagine that stopping smoking is like stopping eating.
So, I don't want to ban smoke just because I don't want to work with banned smokers. But I don't want to inhale the stuff, either.
What I would like is to find the national scene more in line with the Minnesota Clean Air Act. What I would like is to extend the airline policy to the ground, wherever possible, and divide the work place into zones.
As the New England Journal of Medicine editorialized: "the feelings and psychological reactions of smokers are as vehement as those of non-smokers. But now, for the first time, we have a quantitative measurement of a physical change -- a fact that may tip the scale in favor of non-smokers."
Well, it's tipped my scale. This morning, at least, one more passive smoker is feeling agressive.