Now and again someone comes out with a list that ranks who is least popular in America. Politicians, lawyers, people who sell us cars —and, yes, journalists — usually make the cut.
But we may have a new champion in smokers.
Kicked outdoors by laws to protect those of us who don't care to inhale what they exhale, they gather outside in designated areas as if they were under quarantine. In the rain they huddle under office awnings to puff away as nonsmokers pass by holding their collective breath. At restaurants where ashtrays once shared table space with the salt and pepper, they are sent outside like disobedient dogs.
And their world keeps shrinking.
Hospitals, colleges and schools are, one by one, banning butts even outside their buildings. The University of Tampa's recent decree that its picturesque campus would henceforth be smoke-free is just the latest.
This was not always so.
Years ago I talked to employees taking their cigarette breaks in a designated smoking area outside the most ironic of settings: Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.
And these were people witnessing the grim link between smoking and cancer on a daily basis.
Sometimes you would see Moffitt patients smoking outside, too, and pulling their IV poles along with them. The addiction is that fierce.
In 2008, Moffitt declared the hospital and surrounding campus smoke-free — a move with which you could hardly argue given its mission. Other hospitals have done the same. When the ban was coming into place at Tampa General, employees asked if they could maybe just lean over the sidewalk and smoke over the waters that surround the hospital. (No.)
When I was in public school in Miami, the teachers lounge was a mysterious place into which our instructors disappeared. (What actually went on in there was the subject of great speculation among the fifth grade.) We watched blue smoke curl from beneath the closed door and, when a teacher came or went, inhaled the escaping nicotine cloud from their hastily smoked Virginia Slims and Kools.
Fast forward, and now even a tarp-covered shack is no longer a smoker's haven.
Teachers and staffers at Pasco's Ridgewood High for years took cigarette breaks in what was called the "smoking shack" at the edge of the school property. (The indignity even that implies.) But as of July 1, smoking was banned and the shack both figuratively and literally was knocked down. Pinellas and Hillsborough had already banned smoking at school facilities.
I remember after the Clean Indoor Air Act passed way back when that a brilliant, chain-smoking judge I covered put a great deal of legal research into getting his private office exempted. It worked, but only for a little while.
Some smokers argue this brave new world smacks of Big Brother and big government, that personal freedoms are what we are supposed to be all about around here. Except your right to, say, drink as supersized and sugary a soda as you can heft in your two hands does not affect the health of the people around you. As everyone knows by now, secondhand smoke does.
Which put smokers on that list.
Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]