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The Rockets were creaming the Denver Nuggets. At halftime Dave Pickrell walked into the hall and lit up a cigarette; five men joined him. It was the day after Christmas 1992, and the first game Pickrell had gone to since the Summit banned smoking. When no one told them to stop, Pickrell figured the new law must not matter.
After the game, he lit a celebratory cigarette on the escalator. As he stepped off, two Houston police officers told him to stop smoking. Ten feet from the door, Pickrell told the officers, "I'm on my way out. No big deal."
Put it out, Pickrell remembers one officer saying. "She took out her nightstick and had every intention of beating the shit out of me," Pickrell says. Reluctantly, he dropped his cigarette and crushed it.
He hasn't been to a game since.
"I've never been so mad," Pickrell says. "I was a raving madman." That night he decided he had to do something to defend his rights: He founded Smokers Fighting Discrimination Inc. Manager of a Kwik Kopy, Pickrell printed personal business cards calling himself the president.
Pickrell's group is composed mainly of older men who don't have the eyesight or energy to do much. And his members are dying from smoking-related diseases. He has lost one to lung cancer, and another had a heart attack. The remaining six meet at Denny's the first Thursday of every month. Pickrell hands out photocopies of newspaper articles and interesting pro-smoking sites he finds on the Web. They talk about the letters they're going to write. It's like an Amnesty International meeting.
Smoking sections are getting smaller, and Pickrell's world is shrinking; there are fewer and fewer places where he as a smoker can go. He can't go to Rockets games. And he's outraged that both Baytown and Bellaire passed ordinances forbidding people to smoke in city parks. Things are so bad for Baytown smokers that they can't even smoke in bowling alleys, bingo halls and some bars. Pickrell's group members write endless letters to the editor and to state representatives. They have solicited signatures at tobacco-sponsored drag races, picketed TV stations demanding unbiased coverage of smokers and spoken at city council meetings. Pickrell has even been arrested fighting for his cause.
"This isn't about smoking," Pickrell says. "It's about me and my rights."
Pickrell believes that people are choking on secondhand smoke. But it's not coming from his beloved cigarettes. Smoke clouds the air, he says, because smoking bans have caused the Bill of Rights to burst into flames. Pickrell votes across-the-board Republican, loves George W. and got his picture in the paper with a group of protesters carrying signs saying Clinton is a rapist. He has smoked a pack and a half a day for as long as he can remember. Some days he smokes more.
He keeps his Doral menthol cigarettes in the front pocket of his shirt. They taste as cool as the green pack they come in. Inhaling feels like pouring minty-fresh Listerine into his lungs. He's sitting in the smoking section at the Denny's on the corner of Loop 610 and T.C. Jester. "Not many smokers here tonight," he says, looking around. He lights his fifth cigarette trying to compensate for the dearth. He sucks the smoke into his lungs and blows it out his nostrils like a tired dragon.
He leans across the table as he talks, blowing waves of smoke at an interviewer, who has already told him that as much as she has always wanted to be a smoker, she's deathly allergic to cigarettes. Still, he holds his cigarette in front of his face at all times and exhales straight at her. He's not what you'd call a considerate smoker.
Every time he lights up, he is exercising the freedom to make his own choices and take risks. This country was founded on people being able to do what they want and have other people leave them alone, Pickrell says. "They want to make freedom illegal," he says about nonsmoking lawmakers. Pickrell feels that his freedom is being stubbed out cigarette by cigarette.
"One thing you hear a lot about is disease prevention," he says. "What they mean is to prevent people from making a free choice." The power to choose is what sets people apart from animals. In the Bible, God told man Timshel, thou mayest: Free will was God's gift. And that freedom was cemented by the Constitution. Pickrell would rather save his freedom than the lives of the 430,700 people who die from smoking each year.
"They prevent smoking-related diseases, but what about America, land of the free?" Pickrell says. "You're not free if everything the government does short-circuits your freedom."
Pickrell knows that smoking can cause lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and a score of other diseases.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says. "Who doesn't?" The surgeon general's warning is embossed in gold on his smokes. He has read the warning hundreds of times. Smoking is a risk, an adventure. He knows what can happen, but he doesn't know what will happen. Everything that makes living more pleasurable comes with some kind of price, Pickrell says.
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