Without complaining — audibly, at least — they leave the building to light up, even when it’s cold and raining. In some offices, that means taking a 15-floor elevator ride to the street.
But remember when people puffed away while working at their desks? The smoke’s ubiquity in offices was taken for granted. It wasn’t until 1995 that California passed the law banning smoking inside public buildings.
A man on his smoke break downtown told me a story about the transition days. “It was no big deal for most of us,” he said, as we stood in the shadows of the Wells Fargo building on B Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. “Everyone started going outside right away, except one guy. To stay inside, he’d take his smoke break on the pot in the bathroom. When you went in there, you knew right away what was going on because there were trails of smoke coming up over the stall walls. You’d say, ‘You’re not supposed to be smoking in there.’ And he’d come back with, ‘No, it’s not me. It must have been somebody before me.’ Yeah, right. ‘I smell smoke right now, and you’re the only one in here.’ ‘Well,’ he’d say, ‘that was another guy. I don’t know who it was.’ So you’d turn the light off when you left and leave him sitting in the dark.”
A few days later, I was in a classroom on the Naval Amphibious Base, located approximately where the road going south out of Coronado starts onto the Silver Strand. On the whiteboard at the front of the room, which is used mostly for CPR training, a sign read: “Designated Smoking Area Is Behind the Garbage Containers.” Curious about how this message is taken, I found the dumpsters across the street, where they were protecting the view of a corner of San Diego Bay from an unsightly group of smoking sailors.
Does it bother you guys, I asked, to be sent out behind the garbage to smoke? Two of them laughed, saying the Navy has always limited smoking to out-of-the-way areas. I mentioned that the classroom sign I saw made me also wonder how California smokers, downtown, for instance, feel about being forced out of buildings they work in daily when they want a cigarette. The sailors didn’t think it bothered people in California anymore because the restriction has been in effect for so long. “But in Kentucky, where I’m from,” said one, “you can still smoke in restaurants and bars. If people there were suddenly told they couldn’t do that, they’d probably take offense.”
I continued speaking with the second sailor, whom I’ll call Steve, since he doesn’t want his words to come to the attention of his command. “I think a lot of people who smoke are actually ashamed of it,” he said, giving himself as an example. “I won’t smoke in front of my parents, my brothers, or my young son because I just don’t want them to see me do it.”
Steve, who is a petty officer first class, granted that smokers often take too many breaks, possibly a contributor to his “shame,” and that other sailors can become resentful over it. “I sometimes get on junior personnel for taking too many smoke breaks because it’s just an excuse to stand around and do nothing.”
Yet Steve sympathizes with his smoking charges: on board the amphibious ships he serves, all smoking is disallowed while refueling or when Harrier jets and helicopters take off and land. “If the restrictions go to 10 or 12 hours, then you’ve got lots of sailors on edge big time, dying for the signal they can smoke again.”
I took my nosiness about smoke breaks back downtown, to San Diego’s large office buildings. For the next two weeks, during the sunny spell we had in January, smoking workers opened up about their habit, and I endured the occasional puff in the face. First impressions suggest that Steve had a valid insight, that many smokers carry at least an uneasy shame about having others see them with a cigarette in their fingers. Among 15–20 smokers who eventually unburdened some of their feelings, only two women consented to give me their names. There was even greater reluctance by current smokers to name their employers; none of them would do it. Most would not even identify what floor of a building they worked on.
Standing in front of the San Diego County Court House, the man I’ll call Ray (“The reason I won’t give you my name is there’s such a social stigma attached to smoking”) betrayed not the slightest qualm about continuing to smoke, although he did acknowledge quitting briefly several times in the past. He said he has smoked for 50 years.
At my back was the bright morning sun, which Ray’s dark glasses shaded from his eyes. On his shirt front was a jury-duty badge. “They haven’t selected me yet,” he said. Ray works in the radiology department of a large hospital, not near downtown. He had no complaints about having to leave his building to smoke. But due, perhaps, to the hospital setting, there are people who hassle him about his smoking, even outside, almost always in a nonverbal way. “They’ll hold their noses or wave their hands in front of their faces, as though my smoke is getting in their eyes, despite the fact that I’m a good distance away.”
Ray, who looked to be in good health, has never had a smoking-related illness, he said, acknowledging that he can’t predict what the future might hold. “But my body is used to smoking and, if I give it a sudden shock by stopping now, that might be worse for me than if I continue. I’ve known people that quit and got cancer only a few years later.”
In San Diego, Ray pays $6.70 for a pack of cigarettes (he returned to the jury room before I could find out which brand), though he said he can get the same pack for $2.70 in Tijuana. “That means that the $4 extra we pay here amounts to a tax on smokers. Smokers don’t get sick nearly as much as people say, but the government uses the taxes to pay for the health-care system. But obese people burden the system much more. Trust me, they come into the hospital with far more problems, in fact, for all imaginable ailments. Society is starting to wake up to that, yet it’s still the smokers who get taxed. The anti-smoking forces have brought that about. Why isn’t there a corresponding tax on food?”
Then there was Rich, who, as I approached, was just lighting up near a planter on the San Diego Civic Center plaza, about 50 feet from the door of the city’s administration building. When he learned what I wanted to talk about, his body seemed to tighten. The subsequent conversation was strained — and short. Rich struck me as hunkering down, readying himself to foil any attempt I might make to trap him into a politically incorrect statement about cigarettes. He denied that he had the slightest complaint about having to step outside to smoke.
Yet despite this circumspection, when I asked Rich, who said he’s been smoking for 60 years, if he’d ever considered quitting, he had this to say: “If my doctor asked me to stop, I’d fire him.”
He appeared to be in good health.
June, whose sandy blonde hair shone in the sun, works in the 27-story Columbia Center building, situated in the square block between A and Ash Streets and Third and Fourth Avenues. She has smoked for 15 years. I asked her how she feels standing on the building’s steps when she takes her smoke breaks. “It’s okay,” she says, “though you definitely feel like an outcast. You can only be in certain places [workers can also smoke on a third-floor deck off the Center], but I know the effects of smoking, and I know people don’t like it. It’s a nasty habit. But you do have that feeling sometimes of being an outcast. Comments are made, you know, like smoking is bad for you or that it smells. That’s why I don’t smoke around people.”
It embarrasses you?
“Of course. Huge,” said June. “It’s an embarrassing habit, although I’m not sure how other smokers feel about it. They mostly seem to feel like it’s their right, that they’re obeying the laws and it’s okay because they’re outside where they’re not affecting anybody around them. I know some smokers get angry and defensive at the comments made toward them. They come right out and say, ‘It’s none of your business’ or ‘It’s my life. I’m not affecting you.’ But me? I’m the opposite. I get embarrassed.”
I asked June if she’d ever tried to stop.
“Never hard enough,” she said. “It wouldn’t last more than a couple of days. But my family and friends still want me to quit.”
What’s their reasoning?
Do you agree with them?
“I agree a hundred percent.”
Are you addicted?
“Yes, it’s the physical withdrawal that’s so difficult.”
Are there any people you won’t smoke near?
“In general, I don’t smoke around people who aren’t smoking. I’ll go off to the side. Do I hide behind buildings or trees? No, I don’t necessarily hide my smoking, just don’t do it in the vicinity of people who aren’t. I never smoke indoors or if I have a passenger in my car. And I’ll typically keep my distance from people that are milling about.”
I’ve often been curious what it’s like to smoke, though not curious enough to start. When I was ten, I picked up the butt of my dad’s cigarette, took one puff, and felt an immediate nausea.
“When you’ve been smoking a long time, like I have, it’s relaxing in a lot of ways,” Wendy Hixson told me outside the Commonwealth Building on A Street, between First Avenue and Front Street. The little area we sat in, with chairs and tables and small trees rising out of faux marble containers, is one of the three nicest smoking reserves I saw at any of San Diego’s high-rise buildings.
“Of course,” continued Hixson, who is 57 and has smoked for 40 years, “the smoking relieves stress, but that’s just habit. You breathe deeper as you smoke. I get away from my desk, my eyes relax, my mind relaxes. I figure out work problems, then I go back and fix them. When I’m out here, my mind doesn’t ever stop, though I don’t consciously think about work. Things just kind of fall into place after I go back inside.”
Hixson has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She told me her doctor calls it a “moderate” case, though it makes her breathing difficult. “It started coming on about five years ago. The problem includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and if I quit smoking, I could probably clear up the bronchitis. But the emphysema means that lots of the little alveoli in my lungs are shot. I used to have asthma too, but that turned out to be caused by a wheat allergy. So I cut the wheat out, and that got better.”
How did you start smoking?
“My parents smoked, which was normal for then. I’m older,” said Hixson, laughing. “But the reason I started smoking? I graduated from high school in 1970 and, by the late 1960s, I had started smoking marijuana. So I started smoking cigarettes for a reason to have matches or a lighter in my purse or other belongings. Then I just took up the cigarettes, too.”
Do you regret that having happened?
“Yes and no. It’s hard to quit, which I did once for three months, but I still enjoy smoking. Some people keep smoking even though they don’t like it anymore. I do enjoy smoking.
“I smoke Maverick’s because they’re relatively inexpensive. I pay $3.75 for a pack. Major brands, depending on where you shop, run anywhere from $5 to $6 or more, depending on the brand and where you get them. Camels, those little short cigarettes, are always a dollar more than Marlboro, which is $5.50, $6 by now. Cartons? You don’t get a break on cartons as a general rule, just a pack times ten. At Costco you can save some money, places like that.
“I do not go to Tijuana, no. Some people do and they save quite a bit because they don’t have to pay tax. And some people go there to buy duty-free cigarettes, so they can sell them on the street. But I heard the ATF [Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms] is bearing down on people like that. You’re not supposed to do that. It’s illegal. But cigarette smuggling still goes on. I used to work for an attorney, and one of our clients was arrested for smuggling.
“The lion’s share of the cost of cigarettes nowadays is the state and federal tax. It’s a sin tax, like the tax on liquor. The government’s hope is twofold: one, that allegedly the extra tax on cigarettes goes to pay for the health care of people who smoke; the other thing is that if they price it up more, people will stop smoking. The high cost has caused more people to stop smoking than anything else. I just buy cheaper cigarettes.”
One guy, I said, told me that “the Man” doesn’t want us to smoke.
“Probably not,” said Hixson, “but there are a lot of vices and addictions that are much worse. Even when you could smoke in restaurants, when you could smoke everywhere, except where they had oxygen in hospitals — that was about it — I was at least considerate of other people. If I was outside and with a nonsmoker, I made sure that my smoke was not blowing in their face. Nowadays, as long as we stay in our little designated smoking areas, everything’s fine.”
How does that feel?
“I have no problem with it. A lot depends on where they put the smoking area. Every business and every building is different. Sometimes they put it in the back alley next to the dumpster, and if you have an ashtray, you’re lucky. Here it’s fairly nice, you have places to sit, there are ashtrays. Hixson’s light brown hair was blowing in the breeze. “I’m a San Diego native and love this sunshine.”
Do most of your friends smoke?
“No, though my husband does. And we smoke in the house. If people come over and they don’t like it, they can go someplace else, make other friends. I’m an adult; it’s my decision. But it is also a matter of respecting the nonsmokers, especially in their homes and their space. So I expect them to respect mine for other reasons.”
Tom stood beneath the 22-story Procopio building between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on B Street, in an open causeway on the west side. He flicked the burnt tip of his cigarette into a spittoon-looking urn with sand in the top.
Nobody in the building told Tom he must stay 20 feet [the state’s minimum requirement] from the door while smoking. But did his company, I asked, say he must take his smoke breaks here? “No,” he told me, a big smile spreading across his face. “It’s just that this spot is where the ashtray is.”
Tom, who is 50-something, looks trim. He has the graying facial skin that smokers often have. He said he’d quit smoking if it started affecting his health.
Does his boss care if Tom takes too many smoke breaks in a day?
“She probably would if she didn’t smoke, too,” said Tom, chuckling again. “She usually goes across the intersection, over there.” He points toward the Bank of America building, which is kitty-corner from where we stand.
“There’s no big deal about having to come outside to smoke,” said Tom. At the mention that some smokers feel banished by the requirement, he scoffs. “Oh, people will always find something to complain about.”
Does he smoke at home?
“Not in the house or in my wife’s car. But I do smoke in a little pick-up truck I drive.”
Michelle Scribner, who is 27 and has smoked for four years, quit smoking when she got pregnant with twins a few years ago. Her resolve lasted for the entire pregnancy, plus an additional four months after she came back to work. Then she started smoking again.
Did the stress at work cause you to light up again?
“I don’t think so. It’s just that I needed something to do out here while I’m on break.”
Scribner works in an upstairs law office in the Westin Hotel building, which, on the first floor facing C Street, houses Jessop’s Jewelers. She told me that several months ago she was asked by building employees to move her sidewalk smoking away from the middle of the block. They said her smoke was entering Jessops’ doors and the C Street entrance of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose address is on Broadway, on the other side of the building. Scribner’s boss allows her three breaks a day, one for lunch. For the others, she stands near the building’s northwest corner, where she has an ashtray.
“When you’re out on break,” Scribner said, “people spot you from a distance, since you’re standing there smoking, and come up trying to bum cigarettes. Or they’ll hit you up for money.”
Lily, 57, and a very fit librarian, quit smoking four years ago, but retains vivid memories of her habit. “Inside and outside smoking are different experiences,” she said. “I think it was something that got disseminated into the air, either the smell or taste. Or maybe I couldn’t quite inhale as much smoke. I’m not sure what was going on, but it wasn’t as fun [to be outside]. I guess you could put it that way.”
The cause of the diminished sensations, Lily speculated, was movement in the air. “It didn’t have to be a heavy breeze or wind,” she said. “If there was anything in the air, and there’s always something in the air that makes things waft, then you’re not going to get the same experience. Smoking, to me, was definitely a stronger experience indoors.”
When the smoking law first sent people outdoors, “it was more annoying,” said Lily, who started smoking at 16 in her home state of Ohio, “because all of a sudden you’re relegated to doing something you haven’t had to do. On the other hand, we were becoming more educated about the dangers of smoking and the effect on other people, so the more educated I got, the more I understood. It went in stages, back and forth. At some point, I had become better educated about whatever was coming my way. Like, ‘Oh, we’re not going to do this on campus,’ or ‘We’re not going to do this within  feet of the building.’ Those things made more sense than at another time when I didn’t understand the repercussions of smoking as well. At some point, I was even glad that you were relegated to less because that caused me to smoke less. I also knew by that time that I should be stopping. So in a lot of ways, I was thankful for being in California. Whenever I went back to Ohio, it was much more lax, and so I ended up being able to smoke a lot more. Same thing when I went overseas, like I did once to France.”
Lily told me she smoked Marlboro Lights in a hard pack. Do you remember what you paid?
“No, but obviously it was growing all the time,” she said. “It sounds strange, but I always voted for the taxes on smoking, because, again, that was more incentive for me to stop.”
The clincher for Lily was a cluster of terrifying heart palpitations she began to experience in 2007. She spent several days in the hospital while doctors administered tests and monitored her vital signs.
“There’s nothing like an immediate health issue to get rid of a bad habit. And it has to be immediate. You can’t just say, ‘Well, I might get cancer sometime in the future.’ No doctor told me to stop, but suddenly, smoking was like saying I’m inviting a tachycardia, which could go into a fibrillation and kill me instantly. And why would I do that? I would be practically embracing it with open arms.”
After getting out of the hospital, Lily stopped smoking and drinking caffeine. “The doctors did not tell me to stop caffeine, either. But it’s a stimulant, too. It was actually [my boyfriend], who is well versed in chemicals and what they do to you, who said, ‘You’re going to want to stop smoking and drinking coffee.’”
Were you ever ashamed of smoking?
“Yeah, and some anger went with that. People felt — and I disapprove of this — like they could come up to you and say things about your smoking. I remember one particular episode, when I was actually outside, so there was nothing against the smoking there, and I was off to the side at a movie theater where there was an outdoor line, and I think I went to get into the line while I still had the cigarette. And this guy next to me looked over and went, ‘That’s disgusting.’ I thought, Wow, why do you have to talk to me that way? On the one hand you know that smoking is kind of a disgusting thing. So, in my mind there was a mix of anger and shame because you do know what other people think. Since I quit, I can’t always say I’ve been disgusted by smoking, but I am now, mostly by realizing the health implications. And if you’re in a crowded room and there’s a lot of smoke, not that that happens a lot, but, man, that can really get to you, to the point where it really is disgusting.”
The Corporate Center building, which faces C Street between India and Columbia Streets, gets my vote for having the best outdoor smoking reserve in San Diego. Located along Columbia, on a raised plaza in front of the building, the area is spacious and attractive, with small trees, planters, and plenty of seating and tables for eating, as well as for smoking. On the plaza’s opposite side, along India, where smoking is forbidden, nonsmokers can enjoy their lunch or coffee breaks.
Gloria, who has angular features and an easy smile, sat with me and smoked Pall Malls. She said she is “40ish” and has smoked since she was 14. She has tried to quit a “couple of times,” each lasting a few days only.
“If you go to Mexico to buy cigarettes,” Gloria said, “Customs will charge you $2 per carton to bring them back into the country. But you can buy cartons down there for $12, compared to $40 here.”
It runs into a little money after a while, right?
“Same as medication,” she said. Gloria believes smoking helps stave off anxiety and depression. “It’s the nicotine,” she said, adding, “If you haven’t had a smoke in a few hours, you’ll feel it.
“I remember walking down the street near here and a homeless person asked me if I had an extra cigarette. I didn’t, so he offered me a Vicodin [in exchange] for one. He could get medication but not cigarettes,” she says, laughing. “That was a good one.”
She tried to explain to me how smoking feels. “You have to smoke to know, but it’s kind of like a head rush, a lift. It’s nothing like alcohol. Some people get a high off of eating. I don’t.”
Do people complain about your smoking?
“If I go over and stand too close to the sidewalk, people will complain about the smoke as they walk by, not really saying things, but coughing or things like that. But then I move. I’m not a rude smoker. I’m not going to smoke in your house. I don’t smoke in my house.”
Do you know rude smokers?
“Oh, definitely. They’ll tell you to move. I do the opposite. I get out of there. It’s just common courtesy. I’m not going to smoke in somebody’s car that doesn’t smoke, or somebody’s house that doesn’t smoke, or in a restaurant. My mother used to smoke in restaurants during the 1970s. Bob’s Big Boy, I remember especially. I remember being able to smoke in restaurants, though I didn’t do it. People in other states still smoke in grocery stores and other such places. A number of people I know in those places roll their own. They buy the paper and the tobacco by the bag and the little device that rolls it. It’s a lot cheaper than buying cartons.”
Do you ever feel ashamed of smoking?
“Some people are ashamed of smoking, yes, maybe embarrassed. I’m not like that, but I’m not going to smoke around people who don’t smoke, though if I go outside to have a cigarette and they come out to talk to me, then it’s fine. I don’t infringe on you, so don’t infringe on me.
“But actually, our rights as smokers are being taken away to some extent. My mother used to tell me that when I was growing up. She’d say, ‘Next thing you know you won’t be able to walk down the street and smoke,’ and now you can’t here in certain areas, for instance Del Mar and El Cajon. You’ll get a ticket.
“In El Cajon, if you’re at a trolley stop — there’s no smoking within 25 feet, even in the parking lot, which is not even close to the stop — if you’re there in El Cajon, you’ll get a double ticket. Not only one for smoking in public, you’ll get one for smoking near the transit station. So you’ll get a $400 some-odd fine. That’s what a transit guy told me.
“As far as restaurants and nightclubs go, I have no problem going outside, but if you can’t go outside, where are you going to smoke? So you don’t even go out if you can’t smoke outside on the street.
“In certain areas of San Diego, they designate places where you can smoke and eat and drink at the same time. I live in Chula Vista, where you can’t smoke even outside at bars and restaurants. You can stand around the front door or back in the alley, but you can’t sit down, like on a little patio, to have a cigarette and, let’s say, a drink.
“If you’re going to limit where you can smoke, then you should set up designated areas every few blocks and not say you can’t smoke in the whole city, like El Cajon and Del Mar do. The residents vote on it. Living in Chula, I don’t get to vote for the mayor here in San Diego, but he affects me and my life and everything around me, since I work here in town.”
Paul, who was wearing a blue pinstriped shirt stood in front of the Merrill Lynch building on Seventh Avenue between B and C Streets. He has been smoking for 30 years. He currently smokes a pack a day.
This is an attractive smoking area, I said, noting a couple of magnolia trees outside the front door, and red flowers with yellow stars in their center. “Yes, and that’s unusual,” said Paul, who has worked in other big office buildings.
The San Diego native started smoking in high school by “going along with the crowd.” Today, he tries not to let his boss see him smoke, though the boss does know it happens.
To my question about negative feelings he might have about smoking, Paul replied: “It used to be that I could smoke in my office. My bosses smoked; everybody smoked.” He remembered the change coming in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when, on their own, managers probably began trying to free their buildings of smoke.
“Once in a while, I still get a little annoyed about having to come outside to smoke. I’m coming down from about midway up the building, four or five floors. It takes away from my work time, obviously. I try to time my breaks so they don’t affect things I’m working on.”
Are you only allowed to have a certain number of breaks per day?
“No, I’m on salary. I’ve seen that happen when people are hourly.”
How often do you come down to smoke?
“About eight times a day, once an hour. But I get a lot of business done down here.”
I imagine him outside making investment sales, but no. “It’s more just talking to people, a social thing,” said Paul, who is friendly and has a big smile. “Down here, outside the office setting, some of the guys talk about projects we’re working on together. At other jobs in the past, where the bosses smoked, we’d all go outside, and I could get approvals to move forward or draw out ideas, things like that, with my bosses. Not so much now, since a lot of them don’t smoke anymore.
“I’ve also spoken to a lot of the homeless that go walking by here. It’s been nice getting to know them, talking to them.
“I am trying to quit, which I’ve done a couple of times over the years. The longest one was two years. Several other times, I reached four or five months. My family complains.”
I asked Eric Bird, no longer a smoker, if in his business the nonsmokers complain about their colleagues using smoke breaks to get out of work. Bird is a set-up man for conventions, movies, and live entertainment venues. He used to smoke behind hotel kitchens while working.
“Actually,” he said, “when people stand around staring into space, or at a garden or sunset, they’re thought to be goofing off. If they’re standing around smoking, that’s considered normal.” ■