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No smoking mission accomplished

JoAnn Parsons is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.


Sometimes a photo can open a forgotten memory file. In this instance, it was the Oregonian’s vintage photo of a hospital patient and two nurses with a cart offering candy and cigarettes. It was undated, but from the nurses’ crisp white uniforms and hairstyles, it was probably 1940-50. The scene, however, could have been any time before the last 25 years when smoking was allowed everywhere — even in hospitals.

Always a non-smoker, I grew up in a haze of cigar smoke generated by my father. That, along with exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke through the years, contributed to my becoming asthmatic in my 50s. The anti-smoking movement was just then beginning in Iowa where I lived, and because smoke triggered my asthma, I launched a personal campaign to eliminate it in public places.

Recalling this era of my life prompted retrieving a file of letters written and clippings saved. The now faded carbon copies of letters written to editors, hospital officials, restaurants and grocery store managers and state senators (with copies to the governor) validate my 1980s activism.

A prime target was hospitals because of experiences following my husband’s heart attack in 1985 and heart surgery in 1988. Iowa’s two hospitals allowed smoking in all areas, including patients’ rooms (unless oxygen was in use). A letter to the “Waterloo Courier’s” editor and hospitals stated my frustration in finding a smoke-free area during his surgery and between my 10 minute hourly visits in ICU, “... the only place I could escape the smoke element of the lobby, cafeteria, and snack area was in a small meditation room when it was available. Later this no smoking room was next to the visitors’ lounge where smoking was permitted and filtered into his room....”

During this time I was active in the hospital-sponsored group, “Better Breathers.” We explored ways of preventing and controlling our respiratory ailments and also got involved in the no-smoking campaign. One evening we were attending an asthma workshop in a hospital meeting room. While a speaker was advising us to avoid secondhand smoke, we were being subjected to it filtering through a folding dividing wall — from an administrative staff meeting that included doctors.

This prompted a group letter-writing project. Not long after, an article on the front page of the “Courier” was headlined: “Hospitals Taking Aim at On-the-job Smoking” the beginning of the end of doctors, nurses and hospital staff polluting the air in health-care facilities.

Grocery stores were also on my agenda. Shopping in aisles where smoke lingered was not pleasant and I was pleased to hear a newly opened store was nonsmoking — except it wasn’t. People ignored the no smoking signs and while pushing their carts with one hand, cupped a cigarette in the other with smoke swirling behind them.

I would head to customer service and report smokers in the various aisles. Then a loudspeaker would blast a reminder of their no-smoking policy followed by an exodus of the guilty slinking toward the exit to extinguish their still-concealed smoldering cigarettes.

I was particularly harsh with a state senator who had been in office for 30 years. The senator was addicted to nicotine and vowed to fight the smoking ban proposed for the senate chamber.

He claimed the anti-smoking efforts were a fad and he would keep smoking his unfiltered Lucky Strikes in the chamber. After berating his published comments, I ended my letter with “...you should not only be thrown out of the chamber for your smoking, you should be removed from political office.”

In 1987 we were lured to Waterloo’s new Greyhound Dog Racing Park advertising no-smoking areas and state-of-the-art ventilation system.

These areas were not only difficult to find and in undesirable locations, they were occupied with smokers, some standing beside the too-small-to-notice “No Smoking” signs. Conversations with a security guard, policeman and hospitality person brought no action so I fired off a letter to the manager describing in detail the aggravations of our evening.

His reply, plus a two-page epistle from their attorneys, claimed their no-smoking provisions sufficient and within the law (which I had questioned). My response: “... your letters are going into my no win situation file and I will leave the Greyhound Park to those wishing to throw their money to the dogs and/or have it go up in smoke.”

And then there were the restaurants — but enough of my vigilante efforts. Progress was being made when we left Iowa in 1992 to become Oregonians. Moving here was like a breath of fresh air as most places were already smoke-free.

I’m grateful those smoky days (and my asthma) are now just memories; but on the day I’m filing them away, I read an article titled “Pipe tobacco, cigar use grows rapidly.” Perhaps my mission is not yet accomplished.




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