Seeing Through The Smoke

Men smoke cigarettes in the street outside a office on January 31, 2007 in Paris.
Getty Images
We see them almost every day. They're outside in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. We usually avoid talking to them. We rarely make eye contact. They are often either by themselves or huddled in clumps in front of office buildings or restaurants. They're hard to avoid in most downtown areas throughout the country. If we sneak a peek at them, they often look ashamed, so we look away and keep walking. Rarely do we even say "hello" to them. Isn't it time we stopped treating them like this? They are somebody's sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Let's show some compassion and stop treating them as pariahs — just because they smoke.

Smokers have become today's lepers, and it just doesn't seem fair.

Let me state my attitude about smoking right here. I hate it. I hate breathing somebody else's smoke, and I really hate smelling smoke on my clothes. I'm happy that so many places are smoke-free today. I'm thrilled that I don't have to worry about somebody smoking a cigar at the next table in a restaurant or lighting up at a business meeting. I'm appalled by what "Big Tobacco" has been able to get away with. And I hate that actors and other "role models" smoke in their photographed "private" lives and on the screen.

Many of you share these feelings. Too many of us have lost loved ones because of smoking. We are dumbfounded that people still smoke despite the undisputed medical facts about it.

But just because we hate smoking doesn't mean we have to hate smokers. We've all learned over the past few decades that alcoholism and other addictions are diseases. Research has shown that compassion and treatment should be involved with people who suffer from these diseases. An addiction to smoking is a disease, too, so where's the compassion for smokers?

Can you imagine treating people who had any other disease the way we treat smokers? We don't force people with high blood pressure to only hang out with other people with hypertension in front of office buildings. We don't look at people with high cholesterol with the same disdain we have for smokers. We don't abstain from smiling at people with ingrown toenails.

It's not the smoker's fault that smoking exists. So why aren't we picketing the tobacco companies' offices instead of turning our backs on smokers? Why aren't we boycotting movie studios that show smoking in a positive light instead of walking past smokers as if they don't exist? Why aren't we campaigning against politicians who keep helping the tobacco industry instead of feeling superior to those who smoke?

It's because smokers make a more visible target. We don't see tobacco executives, politicians, or movie moguls every day. So we take out our anger, outrage, and disgust on smokers. Some of us view those who smoke as though something is wrong with them as people. I can't be the only one who has met somebody, liked them, and then become surprised to find out that anyone so intelligent and nice could be a smoker.

It's time for these unfair attitudes to change. I'm going to try to treat smokers differently. When I see them outside of a building, puffing away, I'm going to say, "hello." Or at least, I'll nod my head in a friendly smile. I'm going to try to be less judgmental of people who smoke and I encourage you to do the same — no matter how bad their smoke smells.

Again, we don't treat people with other addictions this way. Our society has come to view those with all kinds of addictions as people with a problem, not as bad people. There are people addicted to shopping, to pornography, to the Internet, to eating, and to gambling, and we don't shun them.

Suppose you were on your way to work, and there was the usual clump of people outside your building. But instead of smokers, what if they were sex addicts? I guarantee you people wouldn't try to ignore them. Everybody would stop and say "hello" — among other things. Many people would be so interested in meeting the sex addicts that they probably wouldn't even make it into the building to work. Shouldn't we have the same compassion for those who can't "just say no" to cigarettes as we have for those who can't "just say no" to anybody?

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them written by smokers.

By Lloyd Garver