Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Writers Who Smoke

Like many others, I was very saddened yesterday to learn about Dana Reeve's death. There's a lot behind my reaction, and I'm not going to delve into it all. But part of it is definitely related to the fact that I've lost a loved one to this disease, and I know how terribly its victims suffer, however bravely.

Since my aunt's illness--she died almost exactly ten years ago--I've been a rabid anti-smoker. Yes, it's true that even non-smokers (like Dana Reeve) are diagnosed with this cancer every year. But the truth remains that the vast majority of lung cancer cases (80%-90%) are among smokers. Smoking is the single most preventable risk factor for the disease. And of the non-smokers who fall victim to it, experts agree that secondary smoke inhalation (Dana Reeve's work as a singer brought her into many smoke-suffused environments) may well be a cause.

At my MFA program, I earned something of a reputation for both pleading with others not to smoke, and for staying away from the clusters of "smoking writers" gathered in bars and elsewhere. Frankly, this behavior isolated me from a lot of conversations and socializing. Good. Having watched my aunt prepare to leave her three then-twentysomething children--and now watching all her grandchildren grow up without their grandmother--I was also offended by the hypocrisy of the writers who would wax eloquent to (childless) me about how much their children mattered to them and the joys of parenting. I often wanted to tell them: "If you want to see your children grow up--and spare them what my cousins went through tending their mother on her deathbed--put out that damn cigarette."

In Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees (an absolutely wonderful book about writing and publishing), we read that "the only place you're likely to find more alcoholics than an AA meeting is a writing program." She may be joking, but it's also highly probable, judging merely from the drinking that also went on in my MFA program. But I wonder about lung cancer cases among writers, too. I can't believe that writers are not overrepresented here. And now that we're realizing that secondary smoke can be so harmful, I have to wonder about lung cancer cases among those writers live with, too.

I can't make others quit smoking (I've tried, and in one case am still trying, if in a less nagging manner), but I can try to protect myself from their secondary smoke.

When I began attending the annual conferences of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), I was stunned by how pervasive the smoking was. I could barely spend more than five minutes in one of the conference hotel bars or restaurants without becoming nauseated.

Last year, the conference was held in Vancouver, and the smokers had to take it outside. While I'm skipping this year's conference, I'm truly happy to know that it's taking place in Austin, Texas, which recently enacted a ban on smoking in public places as well.

I hope AWP will continue to hold its conferences in cities that look out for the health of their citizens and tourists. Yes, the writers who smoke may be inconvenienced a bit. I wish the audiences who went to hear Dana Reeve sing had been similarly inconvenienced.

2 comments:

harried mom said...

Thank you for this. My sister, who happens to be a nurse, has been smoking for twenty years, even through two pregnancies. I fear it's only a matter of time before she and my non-smoking nephews receive a diagnosis of lung cancer. My gentle and not-so-gentle pleas for her to stop smoking have never worked.

Elizabeth de Veer said...

I have an oncologist friend who goes up to people who smoke and says something like "I'm so glad to see you smoking, it ensures me future business. Here's my card." It's an oncologist's crass but blunt approach to driving the point home.