For the Sunday Gazette


Bob Newhart goes back in time to 16th century England to take a transatlantic call from his friend Sir Walter Raleigh in America. He can’t believe what he’s hearing:


Are you saying “snuff,” Walt? What's snuff? You take a pinch of tobacco (giggling in disbelief) and you shove it up your nose! And it makes you sneeze, huh. I imagine it would, Walt, yeah. Goldenrod seems to do it pretty well over here. It has some other uses, though? You can chew it? Or put it in a pipe? Or you can shred it up and put it on a piece of paper, and roll it up—don't tell me, Walt, don't tell me—you stick in your ear, right Walt? Oh, between your lips! Then what do you do to it? (More intense giggling) You set fire to it! And you inhale the smoke! …Walt, we've been a little worried about you... You’ll have a tough time getting people to stick burning leaves in their mouth..


       Would that that were true. H. Allen Smith called this the greatest single comedy routine he had ever heard. To my mind, the only competitors for that accolade are Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” and Bill Cosby’s Noah routine. But is Sir Walter solely responsible for spreading the insidious practice among the sparse Colonial American population and thence back to England? Probably not. Or perhaps I have a soft spot for him because both Raleigh and Reilly are derivatives of the Gaelic O’Raghaleaigh.

       But beyond the snuff and puff is serious stuff. About 42,000 Americans are killed in automobiles each year through incidents that are not necessarily “accidents” because so many are caused by drunken drivers. But ten times that many die from smoking each year, and none of these are accidents. The number would be even higher than 400,000 if we were to include those who do not smoke but spend too much time in close proximity to someone who does.

     I get no credit for not smoking because I never started. One day, when I was 10, two incipient bullies tried to get me to try a puff, but the more they insisted, the harder I resisted. Besides not wanting to yield to force, I just thought, that smoking was silly. To this day, I can’t imagine why people want to cloud their mind with any kind of drug, especially tobacco, which is more lethal than many that are illegal. How can they solve their quadratic equations? Cope with Microsoft software? Do their crosswords and Sudoku in record time? Write their op ed columns?

     By now, of course, we know that tobacco is an addictive poison that kills. I doubt that there are many readers of my Gazette essays who smoke. The practice is waning and seems now to be pretty much confined to male construction workers; high school girls who think that they are immortal; young women who, like aspiring actresses, like to pose with a cigarette in their hand; and, saddest to say, health care workers—nurses and aides far more than doctors. None of these have time to read op ed screeds. So I am not writing for smokers, but rather for abolitionists who want a few tips on what can be done to persuade loved ones to quit.

     Sales prohibition doesn’t work; the country has been there, done that, with regard to alcohol, nor does it work now by declaring other mind-boggling chemicals illegal. So perhaps the best we can do in this regard is to make procurement difficult. Yes, there is an age limit to purchase. But more could be done to reduce the incidence of smoking.

      The DARE program tries to do this through education of our children. So does Smoke-Free Schenectady, led by physicians Clifford Tepper and Arnold Ritterband with educational services delivered by Executive Director Shelly Glock. That organization is essentially a subcommittee of the Schenectady County Health Services Committee and derives its funding from the county’s portion of past tobacco suit settlements.

     Only in America do drugstores make ailing people go to the back of the  store to get life-enhancing prescriptions filled while making it easy for addicts to buy coffin nails at the front counter. Stores should be forced to choose between selling good drugs or bad drugs, but not both.

     Great progress has been made in banning smoking in public buildings, particularly restaurants. But why does the ban not extend to a wider swath around them rather than placing receptacles at their entrances that induce patrons to stand near the doorway and make me navigate around their mushroom clouds? To do so, I try to conspicuously walk a wide circle around them, hoping they’ll get the hint. Or worse, companies set aside picnic tables or even gazebos marked as smoking areas. Absurd.

        Legislators, collect those taxes on the effectively subsidized cigs sold on Indian reservations and over the Internet. Parents and grandparents, speak to your non-smoking high-school students and urge them not to kiss boy- or girlfriends who smoke. That would send the instant messages they are so fond of. And write to the movie moguls and ask them to add a new rating for movies that so warrant—GS for Gratuitous Smoking (not to be confused with Graphic Something or other).

       Some years ago I saw a sign near a fire extinguisher in a Massachusetts country store that said “If I see smoke emanating from the vicinity of your mouth I will assume that you are on fire and take appropriate action.” The proprietor was obviously a Newhart fan.


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr., Treasurer of Smoke-Free Schenectady, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion pages.