Ruth Bass: Smokers will still walk a mile for a pack

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RICHMOND — "I'd walk a mile for a Camel" was the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company's famous slogan in the heyday of Camel cigarettes, long before filters were added. In Pittsfield, smokers may have to walk that walk in reality if a cap is placed on the number of places where cigarettes can be sold. Probably good for their lungs.

The proposal comes from the Board of Health, ostensibly as a way to say, loud and clear, that people should give up smoking. For some reason, the board thinks that having fewer sales outlets will push people to quit. It's not true: The addicted smoker will walk or drive a mile or more to get to a place where cigarettes are sold. As for promoting quitting, of course, the board is right on. But it isn't easy.

It was a relief to ex-smokers when the health people admitted that smoking was not a mere habit, like biting your fingernails or tapping your foot. It was addictive. Nicotine was a drug that grabbed the smoker and could not be denied. Thus, no one will quit smoking because the new store on the corner can't stock cigarettes. The board is trying to look out for Pittsfield's health, but this rule won't cut the smoke.

The sale of cigarettes isn't a moral issue for most store owners. It's economic. Little stores now carry everything from soup to soda, with cigarettes a major piece of the profit margin. So, while ignorance isn't bliss, Pittsfield could decide to grant a waiver to a new store where the owners claim they made their plans without knowing about the cap on licenses — and enforce the cap from then on, hoping attrition will reduce the present 51 toward a goal of 25.

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Raising the legal age for purchasing tobacco to 21 has also been placed on the table, also with the hope of reducing the number of smokers in Pittsfield. The city has an adult smoking rate that is 15 percent above the state average, with 23 percent of the city's adult population still smoking. Depriving teenagers, who are heavily targeted by tobacco company advertising, of the right to buy cigarettes might help — for the law-abiding and if enforced. Enforcement would have to be serious, such as suspension of the seller's license.

Education is really the answer to reducing the number of people smoking. Quite a few will quit if they watch someone go through the final stages of lung cancer — my kids watched a favorite baby sitter propel her wheelchair around her house while attached to a long tube of oxygen supply. The number of smokers in the nation has dropped several percentage points in recent years, but some 40 million Americans still smoke.

By and large, coast to coast, it's an inconvenience now. Most workplaces have banned smoking, as have most restaurants and bars, some parks, all stores. Where it was once fun to find the occasional movie theater that allowed smoking, it's now rare — or perhaps never. Aware of second-hand smoke effects, homeowners take their cigarettes to the front steps these days, and no one lights up at the dinner table.

In the old days, the really old days, the equivalent of the walk a mile ad was when Virginia Slims pictured a glamorous and emancipated woman smoking in public. That was "You've come a long way, Baby." Today, we'd say we've come a long way, baby, because we've moved on from overflowing ashtrays in bus and train stations, butts discarded on golf fairways, people who assume it's okay to smoke in your house and the deep-seated smell of old smoke in clothes closets.

Those of us who quit long, long ago remember well that it wasn't easy. But we never walked a mile for a pack.

Ruth Bass gave up smoking several times before it worked. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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