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Do I mind if you smoke?

I don't smoke - if I can help it. Although I never light a cigarette myself, every now and then I am forced to smoke involuntarily, or breathe what scientists call environmental tobacco smoke - what everybody else calls secondhand smoke. Some people who smoke have become very considerate of those of us who do not, and they refrain from smoking in public. Others, however, still do not understand that if I wanted to smoke, I would do it myself. It is not that I cannot afford cigarettes and need a free ride on the extra smoke they blow my way. I just do not want to breathe that stuff into my nose and lungs.

Recently our town council held a public hearing about a proposed ordinance that would limit smoking in public places. Lots of citizens came to speak their mind. I already knew what the people in favor of the ordinance would say. They talked about the dangers of passive smoking to their health and their children's health. A few mentioned that they were allergic to smoke, and some were honest enough to say they just did not like the smell. Wow, the people who smoked went wild on that one!

Part of the ordinance dealt with smoking in restaurants. One of the speakers told the crowd that occasionally she had been in restaurants where she did not like the smell of a woman's perfume at the next table, and she wondered aloud if that would be the next topic for legislation. Others went a step further (just as seriously) and exclaimed that they are bothered when people nearby pass gas. They reasoned that, since nobody talks about legislating where or when people are allowed to pass gas, no one should regulate smoking either.

Let us think about that for a minute. I will be the first to say I do not enjoy being near someone who is passing gas. Frankly, with very few exceptions, I doubt that anyone does. But how appropriate is it to compare flatus with secondhand smoke? For years I have been trying to think of a comparison that would help people who smoke to understand how unpleasant it is to breathe their smoke. Flatus could be it.

From casual observation I have determined that it takes approximately 7 minutes for the average person to make a cigarette. As anyone who has been near a person who smokes can attest, the smell of the smoke can linger for hours. In all fairness, however, the smell is most intense during the actual smoking of the cigarette. As a physician, I feel confident in saying that the normal human body can only pass gas for a maximum of 3 to 4 seconds (no matter how long it seems) at a time. As we all know, it is usually much less than that. But to fully explore this analogy, we need to somewhat equate the two unpleasantries.

For a moment, try to imagine sitting at a restaurant just after completing a great meal. Then imagine that a guy at the table next to you passes gas for 7 minutes without stopping. Then imagine that, a minute or so after he starts, his wife does the same thing for 7 minutes without stopping. Not a very pleasant thought. Now imagine you share an office with a co-worker who, instead of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day (20 cigarettes), passes gas 20 times per day for 7 minutes at a time (I cannot bring myself to even contemplate the equivalent of a person who smokes two packs per day).

It is my guess that, if it were physiologically possible for someone to pass gas in the same quantity as people exhale smoke, there probably would be cries for legislation to protect the rest of the public and their children. Fortunately, that is something we will never have to worry about. Remember that, although unpleasant, gas is not even a known carcinogen! Unfortunately, cigarette smoke is.

Although it is often humorous to take positions to the extreme, I hope some people who smoke will realize how humorless it is for the people who are exposed to their smoke. The issue of smell is probably the least important of all, but the only one people who smoke seem to latch onto. Smoking is a privilege, however, that privilege does not supersede my right to breathe clean air.

Yes, people who smoke may exercise their privilege, but the next time someone asks me, "Do you mind if I smoke?" I will respond, "Do you mind if I...?"
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Author:Freed, Gary L.
Publication:Journal of Family Practice
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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