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?”