Arizona does need another obstacle to using tobacco
When Vern Roberts talks about a lifetime of smoking cigarettes in Tucson taverns, you hear both the regret and the rattle of his ruined lungs.
"Secondhand smoke, who ever heard of it?" Roberts said, hooked up to the oxygen tank he uses 24 hours a day. "Nobody ever even heard of smoking giving you cancer back then. I guess I got the double whammy."
What the 70-year-old former bartender didn't know when he was getting addicted to tobacco in the early 1950s has long since been made clear.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it kills 418,000 Americans each year, including 3,000 nonsmokers who die from breathing secondhand fumes.
Still, 18 percent of all Arizonans smoke.
Even as some are dying of the habit, others are taking it up.
Because knowing doesn't always translate into doing, society for years has been not-so-gently nudging smokers to quit and discouraging would-be smokers from taking up the habit.
We've banned advertisements of cigarettes, put health warnings on packages, raised taxes on tobacco products, used congressional clout to force the tobacco industry to tell the truth about their products and stop pandering to children and barred smoking in many places where it once was permitted.
Now, a group of public health experts from Phoenix who call their effort "Smoke-Free Arizona" is pushing for another obstacle to smoking.
Petitions are circulating statewide to gather 122,000 signatures needed to ask voters to outlaw lighting up in all public buildings and workplaces, including the hallowed ground of smoke-filled bars.
I can't wait to sign.
There's already plenty of wailing about this proposal, much of it punctuated by coughing and wheezing.
I hear it in the newsroom.
"It's my choice, Big Brother! If you don't like it, don't stand next to my cigarette!"
Calm down, smoky. You don't want to strain that hypertensive heart.
You can still smoke. Just don't smoke on me or others who don't care to share your habit.
The folks at Smoke-Free Arizona say this is a public health issue.
Research shows secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, at least 60 of which cause cancer.
So when drinkers get to smoking inside taverns, the air fills with toxins for all to share. And bars are public places, not the private domain of those who smoke.
Dedicated smokers love to dispute research that says tobacco causes a host of serious health problems, including cancer, heart disease and respiratory ailments.
"Cognitive dissonance" is one of the few theories I remember from a social psychology course in college.
The more common term for it is "justification."
Here's the point where I admit to one of the dopiest episodes of my life.
In my 30s, I tried to take up smoking.
The moronic effort came while living in one of the heaviest-smoking states in the nation â€“ Michigan â€“ and spending a fair amount of time in bars with friends who smoked.
Unlike so many, I just couldn't get the hang of it.
It made my lungs itch and my throat hurt, so I quit trying.
Now, any time I enter a smoke-filled joint to get a drink or a bite to eat, I get that same sick feeling.
Roberts, whose two-pack-a-day habit and workday habitat left him with emphysema, asthma and heart disease, said he'd like to warn others about the dangers of smoking.
But he can't bring himself to do it.
"When I see a smoker and I know they're going to have a problem, I don't say anything to them because I don't think it's my business," he said.
This rant aside, I know what he means.
Last spring, I signed on with Project Reach, a research effort at the University of Arizona aimed at training people to encourage smokers to quit, using techniques that are less obnoxious than harping.
I've yet to apply what I learned on the relatives and friends I planned to help.
Dr. Myra Muramoto, the principal investigator for Project Reach, said overcoming such social obstacles is part of what the project is exploring.
"One thing we have heard is that it's hardest with the people you're close to," she said. "Part of our training is to try to get people over that hump."
The "brief interventions" taught by Project Reach are intended to be one of many motivations to get smokers to quit, Muramoto said.
"There are so many little things that contribute to people deciding they're going to quit," she said. "There's a smoking ban in the workplace. The price of a pack has gone up. There's somebody in the workplace who's got some materials about quitting. Sometimes it's a big thing, like someone's family member is diagnosed with lung cancer. But usually it's a lot of little things that add up to 'OK. It's time to quit.' "
Outlawing smoking in bars and other public buildings is one more step â€“ and it works.
"California is very strong evidence. They have consistently shown a lower smoking rate," she said. "It becomes a hassle, and people think 'I would just rather not do this.' "
So you see, those Smoke-Free Arizona people have the health of us all in mind.
It's good they're not reluctant to do something about it.