Wednesday, March 14, 2007


The Little Puritans

Not long ago, after a nice outdoor dinner on Jamaica, my brother and I ordered drinks and lighted cigarettes. My delightful nephew, who is 12, became miserable. “You really have to put those out,” he told us. “You could die.”

After a few nights of his saying the same thing, it became a bore, especially when he held his napkin to his face like a gas mask for secondhand smoke.

I explained firmly that his father and I are social smokers, who like the occasional cigarette, and that secondhand smoke isn’t an issue outdoors on the water. He went off to sulk. I felt bad.

But later, my brother, a caring father, said he was grateful I had spoken up.

“He won’t accept that the occasional cigarette isn’t going to kill you,” he said. “He’s been brainwashed by all his school programs, and it’s become oppressive.”

I know other parents who say the same. Their younger children are having nightmares from graphic antismoking films they see in school or thinking that their relatives with bad habits are bad people.

One nonsmoking father, Robert Warren, who records albums for children as Uncle Rock, wrote a controversial song he never recorded called “I Love Someone Who Smokes.” His gentle son, in first grade at the time, was grappling with how to reconcile frightening information he was getting in school with his feelings for a beloved grandmother with a nicotine habit.

Still, it would be irresponsible not to applaud the good intentions of substance-abuse programs. And it would be wrong not to note that smoking is linked to 450,000 deaths a year, and that for most people my moderate social smoking is not an option, given the addictive quality of nicotine.

“We’re telling kids in schools all over the country that smoking is addictive and causes cancer and heart disease,” said Joseph Califano, the president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia. “And there’s no way that they’re not going to bring that message home. Kids can have a very potent effect on us.”

But is it possible that the effect they’re having is a little too potent?

Call me a crabby old baby boomer, but I’m tired of parents who let children commandeer every conversation. And should they be allowed to bully us with their concerns? Maybe they’re telling us they’re tired of the pressure to get into the right college. Maybe they’re getting back at parents fixated on their nutrition or video games.

It can’t help that children are living in a transfat-banning, nanny-state culture.

They are asked to sign pledges at school never to smoke, drink or try drugs. They are inspired by zealous organizations to monitor parental drinking. One father I know was called a drug addict by his son for having a couple of beers after work.

Yes, they have good reason not to want parents to smoke, drink or abuse drugs.

But does that mean a 9-year-old from Connecticut should propose a smoking ban in cars where there are minors? That happened last year, when a boy, with his mother’s help, contacted his state representative and collected 200 signatures. The proposed ban has been introduced into the state legislature.

Of course, parents are also touched by children concerned for their health.

That’s why one mother I know has quietly endured Post-it notes all over her home asking, “Do you want to die?” Others let children pull cigarettes out of their mouths and the mouths of their friends. Another mother I know, who smokes occasionally, tells her son she appreciates his concern, but she has to make her own decisions. It’s as if she’s explaining herself to a strict father.

“I think it’s nice to respect the wishes of young people,” said Ann Dexter-Jones, a smoker and mother of five grown children. “But we’ve forgotten who makes the rules in our society. And there’s a fine line between showing concern and bad manners.”

It all comes down to that, doesn’t it?

As for my nephew, he has agreed to lighten up when we light up.

“So we’re O.K. on the occasional smoking thing?” I asked him.

“Sure, Uncle Bob,” he said. “But we still have to talk about drinking.”


Sunday, March 11, 2007


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