This morning as I got out of my car in the drizzle and headed to the door of my office, I saw one of the saddest sights that can be imagined, the sight of smokers standing under the open sky, with no shelter at all, puffing at their cancer sticks while the rain poured down. These poor souls, slaves to their addiction, had no shelter above them to keep off the rain, no ashtrays or other accoutrements to show that their presence was an officially sanctioned one, and though one of them, a neighbor of mine at work, managed to comment on the beauty of the pheasants that were in the same meadow, and who was clever enough to be holding an umbrella over his head while his cigarette puffed in his mouth, it still could not erase the melancholy look of exile and general shabbiness that happens when people in wet clothing face the cruel elements because of the compulsion that they are under.
How did matters come to this? Why were these smokers in a large grassy meadow  without any shade or shelter from the cold rain? It just so happens that yesterday we had received an official memo, referring to a policy we had been informed of verbally at the beginning of the year, that no longer allowed smoking or e-cigs or anything of that nature within the property owned by our parent company, which included the area where the smokers used to congregate in one of the back entrances that I avoided like the plague. As a result, there has been some humor that I have made to some of the people around me, since I work with a large number of smokers, about the various strategies that they would use to find off-site locations to smoke now that they cannot do so on the property.
Yet at the same time, this reminds me of just how far the state of smokers has fallen over the course of my own lifetime. As a child, for example, growing up in Florida, I remember the smoke fumes coming from the smoking section of restaurants, the presence of smokers near every open door in most of the places I worked during my early adulthood after smoking was banned inside of offices. Yet there has been a clear erosion of the freedom to smoke given the health dangers to the larger community at large. First smokers were segregated from the regular population but allowed a presence inside, and then smokers were booted outside, but able to hang around on the margins. Now, it seems, smoking is not wanted on the premises at all, and soon it may not be wanted within eyesight as a reminder. Even where non-smokers are not enveloped with fumes from the smokers in their midst, the importance of preserving public health is greatly outweighing the supposed right of people to smoke.
And yet although I tend to have somewhat sensitive health, and have been made sick by the smokers around me from childhood, given that many of my neighbors and some of my stepfamily smoked, besides those people I worked with and sometimes socialized with, I feel a great deal of pity for the people I see smoking in such obvious discomfort and misery. No one would subject themselves to being soaked to the bone, or embarrassing themselves in front of the parking lot and looking gloomy and oppressed, were it not for the fact that they were in the grips of addiction, an addiction that drives them on to smoke even despite all of the misery it leads them to, and all of the restrictions on their behavior as a result of the concerns of companies for the larger public health of their employees. Despite all of the bribes in terms of lower insurance rates for successfully doing smoking cessation programs, and despite all of the problems and troubles that result from smoking, still the addiction drags them unwillingly along.
None of us are immune to being a part of this saddest scene. We all have some sort of weakness that can, if we are unfortunate, lead to our embarrassment and humiliation. We all have compulsions that could drive us onward, despite the difficulties we would be led into, if we were left to our own devices. In some circumstances, these drives and compulsions and addictions could be considered as praiseworthy. A work addict, for example, may be praised by his bosses for being so dedicated to work, even with the cost to other aspects of life that occur when one’s life is out of balance. An alcoholic may find himself to be loved in the boon company of fellow drunks, and I suppose smokers have their own solidarity with others as they engage in the mutual bumming of a light and share in the carcinogenic haze of socializing with others of like practices. And yet, although the treatment of smokers has declined precipitously in recent years, still those who smoke seem to accept the stigma and the losses they are facing to protect others from the dangers of second hand smoke. Is this something that we can expect to continue indefinitely?