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Dallas’ Plan to Outlaw Smoking and One Writer’s Struggles to Quit

There was a time when there were no restrictions on where you could smoke in Dallas. Now, thanks to the City Council, the freedom to smokers to light up in public may be extinguished. Doesn’t anyone remember how awesome it is to smoke?
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image of smoking couple
photography by Patrick Langlinais; hair and makeup by Jason Hull and Angela Stromeyer (Avalon Salon); styling by Mimi Le (Seaminx); Lindsey and Jason are dressed in vintage gear from Dolly Python and House of Dang.

You probably don’t need me to tell you this, since I am neither a doctor nor a scientist nor, as far as you know, your father. But I will anyway. If you don’t want to die of lung cancer or heart disease or emphysema or some other malady that kills you slowly but oh so surely—and I suspect that describes the vast majority of you—don’t start smoking. Cigarettes are bad. Beyond blackening your lungs, they also yellow your fingers, stain your teeth brown, and, over time, turn your skin an unsightly shade of gray. They make your clothes smell awful. They absolutely ruin your breath. They take valuable time out of your day and, as I mentioned before, years off your life. There is almost nothing at all to recommend them.

Except for one thing: smoking is awesome.

Cigarettes are bad for you. But the actual physical act of smoking? It’s the best. Seriously. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Remember those old Newport print advertisements, the ones depicting an impossibly happy couple enjoying various outdoor activities while also insouciantly enjoying his-and-hers cigarettes? “Alive with pleasure” was the tagline. Smoking really is like that. Those ads might as well have been still photos from a documentary.

Were you so inclined, you would be hard-pressed to find one former smoker who would tell you otherwise. In fact, no one romanticizes the idea of smoking more than former smokers. (Sidebar: you know what is a fun thing to do when talking about smoking cigarettes? Smoke cigarettes.) I doubt one person has ever quit smoking because he simply did not care for it. That would be like giving up sex because you thought it wasn’t fun.

L. Rust Hills, who served as Esquire’s fiction editor for longer than I’ve been alive, once wrote, “Some people, if they died of lung cancer and then somehow managed to come back to life, what they’d want first is a cigarette.” And to that, I say: amen. In the same essay, Hills also came up with the concept of life as a “Three-Legged Stool, supported by Booze, Coffee, and Smokes, which interdepend essentially.” To which I say: double amen.

Maybe your personal Three-Legged Stool is different. Maybe it consists of Diet Coke, exercise, and eight solid hours of shut-eye at night. Good for you. But what if someone came along and told you when and where you could drink your precious Diet Cokes? What if they eliminated one place, and then another and another, until the only location you could comfortably enjoy a Diet Coke was in your own home? What if someone kicked away one of the legs of your stool?

That’s what is happening to me, and all of my fellow smokers in Dallas, a city that once respected (or tolerated, at any rate) our kind. We aren’t being extinguished like dinosaurs. There isn’t one cataclysmic event to blame. We are instead going the way of the buffalo. Our territory has been gradually usurped until there is now almost nothing left. The one stretch of wide-open plain we can still roam proud and free—bars—will soon be taken away from us, too. It might happen in six months. It might happen in a year. But it’s going to happen. The Dallas City Council has already held informal discussions on the sort of ban that has hit New York, Los Angeles, and other big cities.

So we are an endangered species, we smokers. I mean, we willingly inhale something loaded with Class A carcinogens. But that is our choice. We are, to borrow from Black Sabbath, killing ourselves to live. Soon we’ll have to do so behind closed doors, before all we have left are neutered versions of beloved watering holes, dive bars suitable for all ages, palaces of sin that are all virtue and no vice.

image of smoking zebra
GOT A LIGHT? Once upon a time, Joe Camel wasn’t the only animal that smoked in Dallas.
photography courtesy of The Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library

“The bans on smoking in bars seemed completely insane when that was first proposed,” says Jacob Sullum, the Dallas-based editor of Reason magazine and the author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health. It’s also important to point out that Sullum is a non-smoker. “That’s what people do in bars. Why don’t you ban drinking in bars? Why don’t you ban picking up women in bars? But it has become accepted. I’ve basically given up any hope of winning that fight. That eventually will be the norm throughout the country. Then, the real question is, will people be allowed to smoke anywhere?”

Me, I decided I wasn’t going to wait for the City Council to tell me the answer is no. I wanted to go out on my own terms. Or, at least, I wanted to try. In the end, I suppose, the cliché is true: you do always hurt the ones you love. Usually, though, your loved ones don’t come in a box of 20.

I’m sorry, cigarettes.

The men have long known, and the women now do know, the irresistible call of the weed. “Give me a match” is the password to the great Alpha-Omega order—the fraternity of mankind. What man hesitates to stop a stranger and ask him for a light?

M.J. Rosenfield Jr. didn’t answer that question in his story from the August 9, 1925, edition of the Dallas Morning News. (The priceless subhead: “Kings and Hoboes Are Brothers When Ushered Into the Presence of the Seductive Lady Nicotine.”) The answer was implied: no one. Why would they? Everyone smoked.

He paid a modicum of attention to the somewhat novel idea at the time that, yes, cigarettes and their various tobacco cousins are bad. But, mostly, the takeaway from Rosenfield Jr.’s full-page story is this: a lot of men (and women, too!) smoke, it’s pretty great, and here are all the ways you can do it—including the use of a fancy ejector holder that I would love to get my hands on. I think it goes without saying that I like the cut of M.J.’s jib.

The Morning News, as near as I can tell, never again quite so explicitly endorsed the Seductive Lady Nicotine. But it didn’t exactly condemn her either, not for a long time. It was an outlook shared by the local populous: if people wanted to smoke, so be it. This attitude manifested itself in surprising ways.

image of smoking cop
ROLE MODELS: Dallas constable to passengers: “Kids, the only thing I enjoy more than keeping the streets safe is this smooth taste.”
photography courtesy of The Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library

Take, for example, Henry the chimpanzee. In 1946, the top exhibit at the Marsalis Park Zoo was Henry, a 30-year-old chimp who smoked cigarettes. “Henry has been smoking most of his life,” a profile of Henry noted. “Visitors to the zoo hand him a cigarette just to see him smoke.”

This wasn’t an isolated incident. The Dallas Public Library’s archives also house photographic evidence of a sad-looking capuchin monkey smoking cigars and a zebra with a cigarette dangling from its lips like a riverboat gambler. I’m not suggesting that Dallas was sort of a Noah’s ark of anthropomorphic animals casually puffing through a pack-a-day habit. What I am saying is this: Dallas was friendly to smokers, four-legged, hairy, or otherwise.

In the 1940s, the anti-smoking faction largely consisted of people like Lorinne Harkey. Harkey wrote a letter to the Morning News that appeared on January 12, 1941, wherein she complained about her status as a non-smoker. “From the burning ends of the rolls of smoldering poison, dragons of smoke crawl through the air, clutch at my throat, swish their tails in my eyes and all but suffocate me,” she wrote. (Though I couldn’t track down Ms. Harkey, I’m assuming from her vivid, purple prose that she enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a romance novelist.)

But Harkey, like most other non-smokers, was resigned to her fate, saying near the end of her letter that she had “no desire to lead a crusade against smoking,” and, furthermore, didn’t want the tobacco companies to go out of business. (“There would be too many good radio programs without sponsors.”) She just wanted ashtrays with smokestacks so she could have bit of fresh air. Fair enough.

Sure, you say, but that was the ’40s. They also liked wearing suits to baseball games. True, but less than two decades ago, Dallas was a smoker’s friend, filled with people like Glenn Herndon and Kay Cohlmia.

Herndon and Cohlmia founded the Great American Smokers Club in the late 1980s. “This is still a free country,” Herndon told the Morning News in 1988, while he was protesting the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout. “If I choose to include smoking in my lifestyle, I have that right.”

To that end, when the federal law banning smoking on domestic flights of two hours or less went into effect in April 1988, Herndon and Cohlmia, along with fellow club member Daniel Cuozzo, attempted to start their own all-smoking airline. The setup consisted of chartered jets with seats available only to members of the Great American Smokers Club, presumably exploiting loopholes in the new legislation.

The club was set to lease two 90-seat planes from Las Vegas-based carrier Royal West Airlines and initially offer anywhere from 10 to 20 daily commuter flights between Dallas and Houston. Once that route was established, the service would extend to New Orleans and Oklahoma City and beyond. “Anyplace they have flights less than two hours,” Cohlmia boasted.

But it was not to be. “I got beat up by the Department of Transportation,” Cohlmia griped to the Boston Globe in 1989. “They wouldn’t go for the club bit.” (Cohlmia later tried to revive Braniff Airlines, so he knows about lost causes.)

Unfortunately, then, Cohlmia and Herndon accomplished little more than acquiring membership in the local smokers hall of fame, alongside such notables as cigar-chomping mayor R.L. Thornton, Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher (the capo di tutti capi of local smokers), and, of course, Henry the monkey.

Until recently, Dallas wasn’t a very restrictive place. Remember, it was known as the can-do city, not the please-don’t. It was the home of shady deals hammered out in smoke-filled back rooms. Hours-long steak dinners accessorized with empty glasses of bourbon and overflowing ashtrays. Swaggering captains of industry who drank and smoked and cheated on their wives with impunity. Hard-living sportswriters who pecked out beautiful copy fueled by slugs of desk-drawer scotch and unfiltered Pall Malls. It was a city of larger-than-life characters with outsized appetites to match, where men were men and smoke flowed freely.

That version of Dallas was more or less gone before I signed the lease on my first apartment here almost a decade ago. But you could still catch a glimpse every now and then. There were wormholes all over the city. You could walk into a place like Louie’s on Henderson Avenue, and when the door shut behind you, it was like being in 1961 again. You almost expected to see men in fedoras knocking back highballs in the dark, wood-paneled, unapologetically smoky room.

Louie’s is still on Henderson, and it’s still great. (I recommend the cheese pizza with feta.) But it’s different since the restaurant smoking ban went into effect in 2003. It’s not, I don’t know, Louie’s anymore. You can bring a 2-year-old there and not feel like Child Protective Services will be scheduling a sit-down. It’s a shame. A visit to a place like Louie’s used to be a rite of passage, something to be looked forward to when you were old enough. Now it’s just another Saturday evening.

I will allow that I don’t really miss smoking during meals at places like Louie’s, because I never did it all that much, out of deference to my wife, an outspoken non-smoker. What I do miss is the smoke, if that makes any sense. It added to the ambience. It helped fill in the details of my fantasy that I was Bud Shrake or Dan Jenkins or some other hero journalist in the making. But that wormhole is permanently closed.

Others, thankfully, still exist. My favorite is the Old Monk, located a bit farther up Henderson. While there may be boutique beers on the menu, the Monk is the kind of joint that would have been exactly the same in 1967 and would probably remain unchanged in 2047. It’s the dictionary definition of a bar. When it’s crowded, and it often is, and the fading sunlight peeking through the windows glistens in the haze of smoke, it feels like things are happening, or they’re about to. I hate to sound too New Age, but there is a certain energy in the room, something combustible in the mix of alcohol, tobacco, and darkness.

I will again quote L. Rust Hills on the matter: “The real reason you drink and smoke so much is that you still have the idea, formed somewhere way back when, that smoking and drinking too much is really a very romantic thing to do. It seems very grown-up to you if you are young, and it seems very youthful to you if you are old.”

If that’s not the exact feeling I have when I walk into the Monk, it’s only because I rarely put that much thought into it. On reflection, I’d say it’s remarkably close. Those old Newport ads boiled down what Hills was talking about to “alive with pleasure,” and that maybe comes closer. But the question is: will I still feel that way when the city tries to turn the Monk into Trinity Hall?

If you haven’t been there, Trinity Hall, located in Mockingbird Station, is a fairly accurate facsimile of an Irish pub, teeming with lacquered wood and polished brass and bits of bar paraphernalia actually imported from the Emerald Isle. But it has always felt a bit false to me, and not just because I can get a bowl of queso with a pint of Guinness. Probably, it’s because of this: while the décor and the drinks put me in the mood to light up, you can’t smoke there. (Ironically, that actually makes it an even better facsimile of an Irish pub, because you can’t smoke where they just call them “pubs” either any longer; Ireland has adopted even more stringent anti-smoking ordinances than the ones in place on this side of the Atlantic.)

I’m not saying I don’t enjoy an occasional trip to Trinity Hall. But visiting there is sort of like going to a theme park or a movie set. It’s about as romantic as a focus group; that indefinable, undeniable energy is not present. I’m certainly not alive with pleasure when I leave. Just full of queso.

For some people, it’s easy. My father smoked throughout his adolescence and early adulthood. When I say he smoked, I mean he smoked. His own father didn’t worry about the fact that he smoked so much as the way he did it, inhaling so deeply that the smoke checked into his lungs but never checked out. He carried on until just after my older brother was born. My mother, as she is wont to do, put her foot down: no more cigarettes.

As he tells it, he removed the half-full pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, walked across the living room, and deposited it on top of the television. The pack remained there for the next year, a testament to his since-kicked habit and a trophy of my mom’s victory. He’d sneak a drag, sometimes even a full cigarette, once a year or so, usually when my dear departed aunt came to visit. But he never took it up again full-time.

My father is a storyteller, partial to grand orations of decidedly less adventurous tales. So I’m sure some of that story is apocryphal. I’ve never been able to properly fact-check it since I was negative 4 years old at the time, my brother’s brain wasn’t fully formed, and my mom has been acting as my dad’s straight man for almost 40 years.

I do, however, believe the basic details are true. For years, I’ve marveled at that display of willpower, while simultaneously being frustrated by it. How did he get off so easily? I’ve been in the same position for seven years, since a few months after I got married. Yet I’ve never made that ceremonial walk across the living room. There has, on occasion, been a pack of cigarettes on our TV. But that’s only because it was closer to the front door, and my ashtray on the porch.

Since my first cigarette when I was 17, the longest I’ve gone without smoking is just shy of 11 months. Needless to say, I didn’t imagine that quitting would be easy. Especially since I didn’t have a well-thought-out plan of attack. People generally pick momentous occasions as the date to quit smoking. Birthdays. Anniversaries. New Year’s Day. At the very least, they start at the beginning of a week. I quit on a Tuesday. Well, officially, I quit on a Monday afternoon, when I finished the pack I bought over the weekend.

The first two days were easy. Even if I had wanted a cigarette—and surprisingly, I didn’t—I doubt anyone would have let me have one, since I’d made such a big deal about it. The trouble occurred Thursday night, when I can only assume the last bit of nicotine left my system. As I sat on the couch with my wife watching 30 Rock, I had the overwhelming feeling that I couldn’t straighten my leg. No matter that, had I straightened it anymore, I would have hyper-extended my knee.

That was followed—complemented, actually—by a sensation somewhere between itching and burning that traveled from the tops of my shoulders to the tips of my toes. It went on for the better part of an hour. I sat there silently, unwilling to talk for fear of blurting my way blindly into an argument with my wife. Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, that I would have to cave in and make the sad drive to 7-Eleven and my pusher man, it went away.

Various withdrawal symptoms came and went during the next few days, staying for a shorter duration each time. By the time Monday rolled around, they were gone. I beat it, I thought. Every day, when I returned home to the one place I knew I couldn’t smoke, that thought ran through my mind. I won. It was a bittersweet victory, since I truly love smoking. But it still felt good.

Physically, I was probably right. I’d made it past the hardest part; my body no longer needed cigarettes to function normally. But mentally, I wasn’t even close. Worse yet, I was cocky. I was perfectly set up to fall.

And then I did.

The situation has reversed itself in the past 60 years. The world now belongs to the modern-day Lorinne Harkeys, and the newer versions aren’t content to write letters to the editor. They are proactive. They tell smokers to butt out. They call restaurants to complain. They turn in offenders. Because of that, these days it’s the smokers who are resigned to their fate as the underclass, consigned to an ever-shrinking domain.

Smokers gave up a lot of ground over the years, losing the right to light up in most public places. But as long as they still had restaurants and bars, they were ahead on points. It seemed like a lead they would never lose. Until Laura Miller was elected mayor.

 Ordinances restricting smoking in restaurants had been discussed and tabled by the City Council for years before Miller took office. Other cities in North Texas passed laws requiring restaurants to install expensive ventilation systems and physically segregate smoking sections. The best Dallas could do was a 1986 law guaranteeing restaurants with more than 50 seats had a non-smoking section, and that it was separated from the smoking area by four feet of floor space. In other words: not much.

The closest the city came to closing the gap was in 1994. Arlington, Carrollton, and Plano had instituted rigorous anti-smoking ordinances. Dallas was kicking the tires on an even harsher statute, based on recommendations from the Environmental Health Advisory Committee. But they didn’t do much kicking: in the words of council member Donna Blumer, it was decided that the city didn’t need “to go so far with these stringent rules that I don’t even think we can enforce anyway.”

Blumer had ample reason to believe that any such ordinance was akin to spitting in the wind (and would prove prescient, since Arlington, Carrollton, and Plano ended up not being able to enforce their measures and all almost immediately backed down). But that didn’t stop Mayor Miller from shepherding the restaurant ban through council in 2003. A shrewish wet blanket herself (politically speaking), Miller knew there were plenty of like-minded fussbudgets who would serve as her watchdogs.

That happened organically. But it didn’t happen right away. As Bob Sambol, owner of Bob’s Steak & Chop House and one of the most vociferous opponents of the ban, says, “When it first switched, it was kind of a joke, because there was no enforcement of it.” I know exactly what he’s talking about.

In late 2003, several months after the restaurant ban was officially on the books, I met a group of friends for dinner at the Angry Dog in Deep Ellum. After we ate, we asked our waitress if she wouldn’t mind bringing an ashtray to our table. She hesitated briefly before agreeing, but added that if anyone complained, we’d have to put out our cigarettes and that the consequences were on us. Understood.

The restaurant was crowded that night, but no one said a word. Midway through our first round of cigarettes, however, it did look like the jig was up. Two police officers came in, taking a table directly behind us. Though there was a cloud of smoke hanging above our heads like an incriminating thought bubble, not to mention still-lit cigarettes in our hands, we tried to play it cool.

I don’t know who broke the dam, but soon we started smoking again, at first taking surreptitious drags and then giving up any pretense. We were exactly the kind of people the ban was enacted to eliminate, carpet-bombing the surrounding tables with secondhand smoke. We finished our cigarettes and lit new ones. The cops didn’t bat an eye. No one did.

That night, it felt like the entire city had tried to quit smoking, and it was on the verge of failing. If you’ve ever tried and failed to quit smoking, you know how it goes. If you don’t, I’ll tell you. You start with the best intentions, and manage to go a few days without so much as a puff. Everything is great. Then something happens—maybe it’s stress at work, maybe it’s one extra beer after—and you give in. You take a drag. It feels good. The next day or the day after that, you backslide a little bit more. Pretty soon, you’ve worked up to bumming an entire cigarette. Then two. The next thing you know, almost without thinking, you walk into a 7-Eleven and walk out with a habit again.

In those early months of the restaurant ban, no one thought it was going to stick. They thought the city would start metaphorically sneaking a few drags, chipping away at its willpower. Eventually, the ban would either be weakened or eliminated entirely. It never happened. The council considered amending the ban, but ultimately decided against it. Non-smokers were given permission to speak freely. And they do.

“They will absolutely come right up to a guy and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You’re not allowed to smoke in here,’ ” Sambol says. He admits to letting regulars light up in the bar later in the evening. “People overreact just at the sight of cigarettes, the sight of cigars.”

Sambol has long since given up the fight—“There’s so much against it now, that as an operator, as a business owner, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it,” he admits—and he’s not alone. There isn’t a timetable on when bars and nightclubs will fall under the umbrella of the anti-smoking ordinance, but it is seen by almost all involved as inevitable. Unbeatable. They aren’t wrong. When the restaurant ban was enacted, it seemed as though Miller was shoving a personal crusade down the public’s throat. This time around, it’s more like the council is giving in to that same public’s wishes.

It would be surprising if the vote were even close, since it’s fairly easy to prove, financially and anecdotally, that the restaurant industry has not been negatively impacted by the ban. After all, it’s an issue on which sparring partners like Mayor Tom Leppert and Councilwoman Angela Hunt agree. Leppert was the only mayoral candidate firmly on the record as being in favor of strengthening the ordinance, and Hunt recently test-drove this sound bite while I rode shotgun: “If people came in and sprayed carcinogens in aerosol form, we wouldn’t go for it.” It’s not exactly “Keep Their Toll Road Out of Our Park!” but it’ll do.

Hunt predicts that, when the bar ban is eventually brought before council, “we’ll see real opposition to that, perhaps even more so” than the restaurant ban. And, yeah, there will no doubt be substantial public outcry. I hope our city’s bar owners go down swinging. But they are definitely going down. They can’t beat an opponent that has the interests of public health on its side. Not unless they can prove that a little smoke, like a little alcohol, is actually good for you. I admit, I silently pray for that on a regular basis.

As it turns out, the city will more than likely quit smoking before I can. Remember the anatomy of a failed attempt to quit smoking I illustrated above? That’s pretty much exactly what happened.

After almost a month on the wagon, I fell off with a thud. An issue at work had left me lost in the weeds. The Seductive Lady Nicotine sent out her siren call, and in a moment of weakness, I heeded it. I have to say, I wasn’t exactly alive with pleasure that day.

In the past, that would have meant a quick trip back to the land of full-blown addiction. (See: failed attempts to quit smoking, Nos. 1 through 227.) But I had just enough willpower left in me to not backslide completely. When I quit, I was smoking a pack a day. As of this writing, a month since I started up again, I’ve smoked four packs total. Since I’ve been smoking for my adult life, I have to consider that a victory. If nothing else, it’s a solid head start on attempt No. 228.

So I can’t say I’ve completely failed. I won’t. The fact is, though, for now, I’m still a second-class citizen killing you with secondhand smoke. And for that, I’m sorry. I let you down. But Dallas let me down first.

Write to [email protected].

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