Peevish and Butt-Led

Against the odds, a new group fights for smokers' rights

Ray Sasso and Enoch Ludlow are fuming. And it's not just from the ciggies they hold so dear.

Sasso (Prime cigarettes, two packs a day) and Ludlow (Benson & Hedges, one pack a day) are fed up with public ridicule and segregation. They're tired of getting shunted outside and glared at by anti-smokers; they're sick of feeling like pariahs, spat upon by pious purists. They want to puff (and, admittedly, perhaps die young) in peace. More important, they want to blow holes in new anti-smoking laws, and they've embarked on a campaign to unite fellow smokers in one whopping, ash-dropping, liberating conflagration.

The name of the political action committee they formed late last month: Fight Ordinances and Restrictions to Control and Eliminate Smoking, or FORCES of San Francisco.

And they don't need a match, thank you. They've got this year's California anti-smoking law -- and an even more restrictive one passed in Palo Alto last month -- to light their political fires.

"What we believe in is free choice," says Sasso, 38, who works at Always Tan and Trim in the Castro, and who knows his position is about as popular these days as snot on a doorknob. Still, he's a pro-choice activist from way back -- he marched down Sixth Avenue in New York for gay liberation back in 1970. He's been emphatically pro-choice in the matter of abortion. And the struggle for smokers' rights has him psyched enough of late to keep him talking over lunch until his pasta grows cold.

"We live in a society where people have to compromise and put up with things," says Sasso. "What if you don't drive a car? Sixty-five percent of urban pollution is caused by automobiles. And yet, people don't go around screaming at drivers. But they'll yell at me for smoking."

Sasso, the group's president -- like Ludlow, the group's treasurer -- believes that smoking restrictions should be up to business owners and individuals -- not the government. And so the two men joined forces and formed FORCES. They've petitioned and put up fliers in the Castro -- and watched hostile cig-haters tear them down. Sasso has gotten in at least two scuffles over his smoking stance, and imagines there will be more.

"I know about the opposition," says Sasso. "I'm ready for it."
Both men say they're neither affiliated with, nor have received any help from, the tobacco industry -- which happens to provide financial and organizational support to more than 50 smokers' rights groups nationwide, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a nonprofit group in Berkeley. Tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris also offer smoker hot lines -- call them, and they'll mail you a smokers' rights group start-up kit. They'll also give your name to one of dozens of tobacco industry "field coordinators," whose job it is to organize smokers' rights protests, particularly when local governments are readying to pass restrictive laws.

But Sasso and Ludlow say their idea had nothing to do with the tobacco powers.

"We're doing this on our own," Sasso says. "What we're looking for is reasonable accommodation. We're not against rational restrictions, but we believe this has become very much like all the other choice issues: Certain people feel they have the right to control you because you're doing something harmful. And I think all adults have to make our own decisions, whether to smoke cigarettes or cigars or whether to drink alcohol. Banning and stopping and prohibiting is not going to stop anybody from doing anything."

There are reasons, of course, for the banning and stopping and prohibiting. According to the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights and the American Lung Association:

Smoking-related diseases -- key among them heart disease, lung cancer, and emphysema -- kill more Americans than homicides, AIDS, auto accidents, suicides, and alcoholism combined, making cigarettes the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths. An estimated 419,000 die each year because of smoking, or more than half the population of San Francisco.

Secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers each year, the American Lung Association claims.

Secondhand smoke contains about 40 carcinogens, including cyanide, arsenic, and benzene: Some smoke-filled rooms hold six times more air pollution than busy highways.

In California, 200 to 300 minors start smoking every day. About 150 of those will become addicted to nicotine; one out of three will eventually die of smoking-related illnesses.

"Nationwide, about a quarter of the adult population smokes," says Scott Thomas, director of tobacco education for the American Lung Association of San Francisco and San Mateo counties. In health-conscious California, fewer adults are lighting up than ever before: About 15 percent of adults were smoking cigarettes this year, compared with nearly 27 percent in 1988, state health statistics show. The bad news in the state, however, is that the adolescent smoking rate is rising, from about 9 percent in 1990 to about 11 percent last year. About 90 percent of smokers acquire the habit before the age of 21.

And everyone is affected, says Thomas. "There's no doubt that secondhand smoke causes problems: Studies show that even the pets of smokers have higher cancer rates, leukemia and stuff like that," he says. If you live or work around smoke -- if you're a bartender, for example -- you're forced to inhale about 4,000 chemicals, he adds.

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