Have you spotted any lately? They frequently travel in packs of three or four, but just as often they’re solo. You seem them clustered around the entrances of bars, restaurants, hospitals, office buildings and the like. They’re easy to identify by their furtive gestures, hunched shoulders and darting glances over their shoulders.
CBC Radio icon Peter Gzowksi once interviewed some visiting Russians who had encountered packs of these creatures bunched around the doorways of hospitals in the far north.
“It is a great pity, the number of prostitutes in your north,” one Russian lamented solemnly.
Gzowski laughed. “Those aren’t prostitutes — they’re smokers.”
Small wonder that Canada’s nicotine addicts have been reduced to the behaviour of urban coyotes — there are fewer and fewer places they can indulge.
Smoking is forbidden at the zoo in Peterborough, Ontario; at beaches in Vancouver, White Rock, Arnprior and Orillia; next to building entrances in all of Alberta, the Yukon, Nova Scotia and B.C.
As for smoking in restaurants, I’m not sure if there’s any place in the country where you can still light up and order a meal at the same time.
I’m not complaining, you understand.
As a reformed nicomaniac, I’m just as self-righteous and intolerant of public smoking as the next person. I’m just saying that anybody who still smokes has got it particularly tough in this era of cancer-conscious, clean- air-zealous, extreme tobacco hostility.
Not to mention having to fork over $10 for a small pack of gaspers.
It’s more like fifteen bucks a pack if you buy your smokes in New York City. In an effort to reduce still further the number of New York smokers, Gotham mayor Michael Bloomberg has jacked up tobacco taxes to levels that would make a crack dealer blush.
But New Yorkers are an inventive lot. There’s a place on Staten Island where you can buy your fix for only $2:95 a pack.
But this is New York, so there’s a catch, natch.
You have to roll the cigarettes yourself.
The helpful folks at Island Smokes will assist you. There’s a cigarette-stuffing machine on site and mounds of pipe tobacco (it’s taxed at a lower rate than cigarette tobacco). You sit on a wooden stool alongside up to a dozen other hard-core smokers, insert an empty cigarette paper into a hole, press a button and out the other end comes a rolled smoke. Takes about four seconds per unit.
It’s a tiny, legalistic loophole that the proprietors of Island Smokes are exploiting and it probably won’t last forever. City lawyers have already slammed the owners with a cease-and-desist order; the tax gendarmes have dropped by and informed them that they are in violation of at least three city bylaws.
Another radio icon, Garrison Keillor, once wrote a short story about The Last of the Smokers, in which America’s final desperate, defiant clutch of smokers were hunted down, captured and ‘rehabilitated’ by the minions of decency. It was a Swiftian satirical piece of writing, deliberately exaggerating the plight of smokers to the point of absurdity.
Or maybe not.
Yet another writer (and smoker) thought and wrote about the Filthy Vice. Kurt Vonnegut defined the habit of smoking cigarettes as “a socially acceptable form of suicide.”
Vonnegut had a black sense of humour. He died, still smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, at the age of 84.
But with a wicked smoker’s cough I’ll bet.
— Arthur Black is a humour columnist and author. He lives on Saltspring Island.