AS HE STEPS OUT to the wide-open street, lights his cigarette and takes that first deep drag, Darryl Mundy of Ventura is all too aware of the reactions he’s likely to elicit.

“They walk by you, 30, 40 yards away,” he says. “They see you smoking and they start coughing, saying how bad it smells, when they could have just walked around me.”

And Robert Best knows the feeling, too; people have tried to clue him in with the passive-aggressive “fake cough,” and have even gone so far as to lecture the man — in public — about it.

“People are starting to get more derogatory toward smokers,” says Best. “Occasionally, somebody would say something. Now, it’s ‘Look at him, he’s smoking
a cigarette!’ ”

Mundy and Best are not the only ones. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20 percent of California residents (that’s nearly 7.4 million people) smoke. And they’ve fast become the minority, enduring a growing number of stares, comments and avoidance from the ever-present majority comprising the nonsmoking community at large.

In the United States, cigarette smoking has become, arguably, the worst social stigma there is, and smokers today are our modern pariahs. Banned by the law from restaurants and most public places, taxed to the high heavens, and demonized by people as breeders of bad health, the tables have turned against smokers … and the ashtrays knocked to the floor.

Today’s cigarette smoker faces an uphill battle so steep to climb that many even decide to quit because of the trouble it costs.

Healthcare organizations and lawmakers have no problem with that; to them, a totally, smokeless America is not some national pipe dream Utopia, but a realistic goal that can itself be met if a widespread consciousness about healthy living, and the dangers of tobacco use, is achieved.

It should have happened years ago, they say, and one need look no further than cancer deaths per year as proof of tobacco’s fatal effects. Ventura County is no exception.

But for people like Best, who coordinates a state branch of a pro-smokers group, partaking of tobacco is an American institution and a personal lifestyle choice. And it’s one right, according to his constituents, that should not be denied.

Butted out

Best said the social boundaries created for smokers could be compared in some degree with the segregation of minorities in the early- to mid-20th century.

“I hate to make the comparison, but in reality it does feel like when black people had to go to the back of the restaurant to get food,” Best says. “We’re considered second-class citizens with no rights.”

As abhorrent as that era was, tobacco smokers, these days, are placed in similar conditions. What was once a commonplace activity has become taboo. The irony? They’re shunned for something that was widely accepted, even encouraged, as a social ritual up through the 1960s and 1970s.

“It was all about fulfilling your own self-worth and doing what you please and having fun,” says Best, a Ventura resident who serves as state spokesman for the Smokers Club, a national group that lobbies for more freedoms for tobacco users.

Best, 33, who was born just as negative public opinion on tobacco really began to take hold, yearns for those vintage days when something as simple as lighting a cigarette was respected and went unquestioned.

“People, in my mind, didn’t really care what their neighbors did,” he explains. “You respected your neighbor. If they wanted to drink themselves into a stupor or smoke cigars, if it wasn’t in your space, they didn’t care. There wasn’t this need to attack people for doing things you find wrong.”

The philosophy holds true for those who religiously visit the Smokers Castle in Ventura. It was so named because, according to owner Bob Gregorchuk, there has always been a sense of honor and camaraderie among smokers. The act of retiring to one’s drawing room for cigars, brandy and conversation was what defined a gentleman.

“Historically, … that attitude’s always been prevalent,” he says.

Tobacco is known for acting as a type of social glue bonding together people taking smoke breaks at work, or celebrating (or commiserating) outside a bar.

“You end up becoming friends,” says Best. “When you’re at bars and you end up having to go outside, you’re bullshitting with other smokers and their friends who decided to go outside.

“Most of the time, there’s a common bond that brings you together.”

According to Gregorchuk, who vends only cigars, they’ve popularly been frowned upon in eateries and other public places because of their superstrong, pungent, odorous smoke. But most cigar lovers knew this already, even when smoking was widely allowed in restaurants and movie theaters. So they set aside the places and times where they can partake in their Cuban stogies.   

“We’ve tried to respect people, knowing our smoke is more powerful,” Gregorchuk says. “They’ve (cigar smokers) been very conscious of their smoke.”

So have cigarette smokers, according to Best and the smokers’ rights camp. But stereotypes prevail, he says. Where cigars are accepted as a leisurely pursuit, cigarettes are habit forming. Cigars, despite their piquant smell, are still considered “cleaner.” Cigarettes, on the other hand, are a physical infringement when lit, the stuff of litter in the street when extinguished.

The health police
2Still, many local governments are taking these things into account and passing their own anti-smoking laws. In Southern California, America’s health Mecca, no other city has taken such stringent action as Calabasas.
City leaders there voted unanimously in 2006 to adopt a secondhand smoke control ordinance, limiting smoking to restricted areas where others won’t potentially be exposed to the smoke from cigarettes. The ordinance states that smoking is disallowed in or near businesses, including hotels, restaurants and bars. Even apartment common areas and parks make the list.

The ordinance also gives a 2012 deadline to apartment building owners to permanently designate all rental units smoke-free.

The bold move by officials of the Los Angeles County-based Calabasas has influenced at least one other city in nearby Ventura County, where similar anti-smoking laws have been enacted.

Thousand Oaks passed its own smoking ordinance last year, prohibiting tobacco use in outdoor customer dining areas and other places of business.

Geoff Ware, the city’s code compliance manager, said city officials looked directly at Calabasas as a model for the Thousand Oaks ordinance. But what’s more important, and even a bit anti-climactic, about the new law is that it’s garnered very little attention, and nary a complaint.

“We receive very few overall complaints,” Ware said. “For the most part, our business community knows what the law is and tries to take steps to comply.”

But for patrons of said establishments who feel like lighting up while enjoying a brew at the bar, the complaints are many, even in the less stringent setting of Ventura.

“It’s a bitch not being able to go in a bar and have a cigarette anymore,” responded one customer of the Star Lounge in Downtown Ventura.

The restrictions still don’t sit well with people like Best or Gregorchuk, also a member of Cigar Rights of America.

“Our beef is with the government,” Gregorchuk says.

Both men agree that government shouldn’t interfere with a person’s civil liberties. Smoking, they say, should be exempt from the law in the same manner that ensures separation of church and state, for one.

“To me, it’s really personal choice,” says Best. “Banning what somebody enjoys doing just because it’s a health concern is going way too far.”


They’ve come a long way, baby
But for Jayne Brechwald, it hasn’t gone far enough. She is the associate director for the Santa Barbara/Ventura counties branch of the American Lung Association, where health advocacy and awareness about smoking are key.

“Our mission is to really protect public health,” she says. “We would like to see more and more restrictions on people smoking, especially if they’re exposing people to a toxin.”

The cigarette embers are slowly dying and anti-smoking campaigns are gaining more life. According to Brechwald, new laws and a general cultural shift toward better health habits have been some of the driving factors in the reduction of smoking in the region.

“The smoking rate in Ventura County is 13.4 percent. It’s about half of what it was 20 years ago,” Brechwald says. “I think the other 87 percent of the population has the right to breathe fresh, clean air.”

The fight between pro-smokers and health advocates often comes down to the semantics of personal rights, and how many freedoms should be afforded a harmful habit.

According to local health officials, smoking is much like driving a car: it’s a privilege, not a right.

“There is no constitutional right to smoke,” says Kathy Cook, director of Ventura County’s tobacco control program. “I think that when smokers say they have ‘the right,’ they are being very self-centered. They’re not thinking about the other people around them.”

She states flatly: “Cigarettes are the only consumer product that if you use it the way you’re supposed to, kills you.”

And the numbers don’t lie. According to data from the 2006 U.S. Census, lung disease, which has been linked to exposure to smoking, is prevalent in Ventura County. And the statistics are staggering.

Out of a countywide population of about 800,000, nearly 20,000 children suffer from pediatric asthma; about 45,000 from adult asthma; 25,000 deal with bronchitis; 10,400 with emphysema; and there are just over 430 lung cancer patients. And that’s with a decline in the smoking rate.

For both Cook and Brechwald, their work in stamping out smoking is personal.

“I developed asthma as a result of secondhand smoke,” said Cook. “For me, it’s an issue.”

Brechwald is a former smoker who did the practically unthinkable in today’s age. She worked in the healthcare industry while still smoking half a pack per day.

Eventually, the contradiction became evident to her.

“I was shocked when I was in public health and used to see all the nurses go out for their smoking breaks,” Brechwald said.

But, she says, “Social norms have changed dramatically.”

Those norms have changed to the point that cessation programs for our people looking to quit have backed up on the county level. Over the past three weeks, according to Cook, there were 100 calls for assistance on the county’s smoking hotline, a record high number.

Cook says the progressive approach to smoking cessation is not to make smokers feel demonized, contrary to popular public opinion on cigarettes.

“Truthfully, I try to explain to them, ‘It’s not your fault,’ ” she says. “ ‘You’re addicted to nicotine and you can’t quit.’ A lot of them have tried numerous times. What they don’t realize is that the amount of nicotine in cigarettes has increased.”

Cessation by taxation
So has the amount of taxes placed on a typical pack of cigarettes.

On April 1, California smokers were hit with a federal 62-cent tax hike on cigarettes. It’s the classic method of using the sale of an unhealthy product to aid children without health insurance, while hoping to discourage the sale of said product through the high price tag.

It’s been a trend that could see taxes raised higher than ever before for tobacco vendors.

“The biggest thing we’re seeing is, the anti-smoking coalition is really taking advantage of taxation,” says Gregorchuk of Smokers Castle.

Gregorchuk’s taxes are sky-high to begin with. His customers pay a 52 percent tax built into the retail price of a common cigar, plus an additional 41 percent.

“It’s going to affect some people who might quit or cut down,” though, adding about higher taxes, “It never worked during prohibition with alcohol.”

According to Darryl Mundy of West Coast Liquors in Ventura, cigarette sales haven’t suffered — yet. Last month, the shop co-owned by Mundy netted $10,000 in cigarette sales. Marlboros and Camels are the two biggest sellers, he said, selling for about $5.24 each after taxes.

And the economy hasn’t harmed business, either.

“They’re your vices,” he said. “Even in tough times, people still smoke.”

However, Mundy cautions that smokers should get wise to government-imposed tax hikes. Many of his customers don’t, blindly paying whatever price it takes for a smoke.

“Consumers should really know what taxes were raised,” Mundy says. “And they don’t.”

Studies performed by the American Lung Association reveal that California could use all the help it can get in regards to aiding smoking cessation. A “State Report Card” released by the organization assigned an “A” grade to the state’s smoke-free air restrictions, due in part to the efforts of cities like Calabasas and Thousand Oaks.

But money provided for cessation coverage, and the tax rate, both received a D grade. And tobacco control program funding, at $78.1 million for 2009, gets an F.

As for New York and New Jersey, the association ranked their tax efforts with an A grade for both states. Smokers there will find themselves paying up to $2.75 in cigarettes taxes — California’s cigarette taxes are $1.49 a pack — hiking the total price on a pack of smokes to $10 in some markets, nearly twice the price paid in California.

As a former smoker herself, Brechwald says the aim of added taxation is not to put down smokers, but rather to enhance public health.

“The smokers I know are very courteous and thoughtful of people around them,” she said. “We’re not targeting smokers.”

Best, of the Smokers Club, agrees, to an extent. He says one of the biggest misunderstandings is the belief that smokers’ rights groups are promoting the habit.

“Nobody is going to admit to you with half a brain that smoking is good for you,” he says. “Every smoker in the country knows that it’s bad. That’s such old news that nobody’s going to bite on that.”

But Best remains critical of government intervention on smoking. Funding for health care is fine, but not at the expense of smokers. At the rate taxes increase, cigarettes could be obsolete in 20 years, he says.

“As soon as people start coming in and telling me how to live my life, as soon as the government discriminates against what I do, or wholesale tax me because they think they can get away with it, is where the problem starts.”