Even When You Do Something Good, There Are Times to Dummy Up About It

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When I was a newspaper reporter in the suburbs years ago, there were a lot of smokers in the newsroom and the ventilation system was no match for the emissions from this crew.

Most days, a two-foot-thick layer of smoke clung to the dropped ceiling, churning malevolently in the fluorescent glow. The odor of burnt cigarettes permeated every stick of furniture, every pile of papers, every coat hung in the door-less closets.

One morning, as I returned to the newsroom after a run to the canteen truck in the parking lot, I pointed to the smog cover and complained to one of my nicotine-crazed colleagues, "Look at that! It's awful in here."

This person was at her typewriter, working on a cigarette as intently as her story. Her only reply was a raised middle finger. I laughed, though I wasn't sure she was kidding.

In those days, scientists were just beginning to look at the dangers of second-hand smoke; today, there's a whole book of knowledge on it. For example, a study recently published in Lancet, the British medical journal, found that second-hand smoke kills more than 600,000 people the world over every year.

Information of that caliber was instrumental in persuading the Massachusetts legislature to enact a bill in mid-2004 prohibiting smoking in every workplace in the Commonwealth. Our company, working then on behalf of the American Cancer Society, was in the coalition that successfully lobbied for the environmental tobacco smoke ban, as the bill was termed.

I often thought of my old newsroom as I made my rounds at the State House, trying to drum up support for the measure. The ground had shifted by then on the dangers of second-hand smoke, so it wasn't an uphill fight. No one gave me the finger in 2004 -- at least on this issue.

I took pride in having helped, in however small a way, to make smoking illegal in the workplace. Subsequently, I found satisfaction in the news that cardiac deaths had declined in Massachusetts, and that many health care professionals credited the workplace smoking ban for that development.
I was also happy to see that most restaurants and bars in the state did not experience a drop in business, as some opponents of our bill had feared. Many establishments, in fact, reported that volumes were up noticeably now that patrons could no longer light up at will.

Jump ahead to the summer of 2007.

I am with a group of old friends in my hometown of Revere for good conversation, appetizers and amber-colored liquids. Our gathering place is a bar run by a good guy from a beloved local family, a person I had once known well but hadn't seen in years. We greeted each other warmly and began catching up. The conversation quickly turned to our respective occupations.

"How's business?" I asked.

"Bad," he said. "Ever since they put that (expletive deleted) smoking ban in, we've been hurting."

"Ummmm," I murmured thoughtfully.

"What about you?" he asked. "What kind of work do you do anyway?"

"Oh, I work in Boston...nothing interesting...the kind of thing I wouldn't waste your time about."

"Yeah, I know how that is," he said.

Good for me that night he didn't.

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