Journeyman Journalist, 1979: Breathing easier

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The first national Great American Smokeout was in November 1977. The last 45 years have brought about dramatic changes in the way society views tobacco use. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Airman 1st Class Perry, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself and other writers career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

In the 1970s, smoking — and exposure to secondhand smoke — was an occupational hazard in newsrooms. Tobacco is addictive to begin with. Add to that the pressures of repetitive work, pressing deadlines, and the need to focus, and it became the go-to complement to coffee in our office at the Journal Opinion.

Both Robert, the editor-publisher, and Barbara, the production manager and paste-up artist, were heavy smokers. We worked side-by-side around the layout tables. Despite being the nonsmoker in the trio, I would return home at the end of the day with smelly clothes, burning eyes, and a nagging cough.

Then came the day of the American Cancer Society’s third Great American Smokeout. The annual event is still going strong on the third Thursday of November. This year it’s tomorrow, the 16th.

If yesterday was an odd day, they must come in pairs. A BEAUTIFUL, sunny morning and early afternoon. The air was FRESH — even in the office, where Robert and Barbara were trying to participate in the Great American Smokeout. I know she didn’t make it, and I suspect he didn’t, either. It will be good tomorrow; the smoke will clear the air. I wrote letters of thanks to them.

Tonight I attended a boring Oxbow meeting with two cub reporters. I think Dan … will work out very well; Sue … however, seems very uncomfortable around me, and with the whole newsgathering process.

Tomorrow: more work. Gack!

Journal, Volume III
15 November 1979

My next couple of workplaces — a public relations office, another local weekly, and a small specialty magazine — were all family-owned by nonsmokers, so air quality wasn’t as much of a problem. After that, I started working nights on the copy desk of a daily newspaper — the Republican-American in Waterbury, Connecticut — where it was a different world.

The copy desk, where I worked, was at the far end of the newsroom, which was a large single chamber that once was the upper lobby of a train station. The windows were decorative and rarely opened; the circulating fans of the ancient air conditioner barely functioned. And only half-dozen of the 50 or so reporters, editors, and news clerks working two shifts in the room were non-smokers.

I was one of them, one of two non-smokers on the eight-man night copy desk. Each night I’d come home at 2 a.m. and take a shower so I wouldn’t smell like an ash tray when I kissed my wife good night.

Conditions improved a few years later when the company adopted a no-smoking policy in shared areas. In those days, smoking was still more prevalent than today and many of our best workers were forced to sublimate their habit with chewing gum or to take their breaks outside.

Smoke-free workplaces, and eventually restaurants, stores, and other public venues, have become far more common since then. They’re even a matter of public policy in most areas, thanks in large part to the American Cancer Society and 50 years of its Great American Smokeout.

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