Live Free and Die

Smokers' rights activist Dave Pickrell thinks his freedom is being stubbed out cigarette by cigarette. He's fighting to stop that, coughing all the way.

"Some things," he says, "are worth living for and dying for."

Pickrell is an almost anorexically thin man with leathery skin and a receding hairline. "Looking at me, you wouldn't know that I eat like a horse," he says, ordering Denny's fried chicken salad. Pickrell has the hacking, insistent cough of a man who has smoked for 35 years.

John Cummings says that in his day the only person who didn't smoke was Hitler.
Deron Neblett
John Cummings says that in his day the only person who didn't smoke was Hitler.

He exhales, stubs out his cigarette. "That's good stuff," he says. Coughing, he orders another tall glass of water.

The oldest of seven children, Pickrell was born and raised in Noblesville, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis. Pickrell's father was an accountant for a phone company who smoked endless packs of Kents. Emulating his dad, Pickrell bought his first pack of Salems when he was 13. Sitting alone in his room, he lit them one by one taking guppy breaths, never swallowing the smoke into his lungs. The first time he inhaled was by accident. It wasn't a Harlequin romance first-time-their-lips-met magical moment; it was miserable. "I coughed and coughed and coughed and I almost fell off my bike," he says. "After that, I got used to it."

Three weeks later he lit up in front of his parents. They told him to put it out; instead he took another drag. "I'm a smoker now," he said. That was the first time he exercised his smoking rights. He was 13, he was a man, he was old enough to make his own decisions. His father told him to quit, "but he'd come and bum cigarettes off me whenever he ran out," Pickrell says. "He was sending mixed messages."

Pickrell's uncle blames his asthma on the smoking of Pickrell's father and grandfather. "It's not medically possible," Pickrell says. "Passive smoking is a scam."

He says this knowing the Environmental Protection Agency has classified secondhand smoke as a carcinogen; of the 4,000 chemicals in secondhand smoke, 43 cause cancer. Passive smoking causes about 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 37,000 heart disease deaths in nonsmokers each year, according to the American Lung Association. His grandmother lived with a smoker for 60 years, and she died at 103. "So much for secondhand smoke," he says.

After high school, Pickrell climbed into his '67 Cougar and drove to Tulsa. He spotted Laurie Lynn at an apartment complex across the street from his. She was doing her laundry, he was looking for a phone; they started talking, then dating and were married a year later. Laurie doesn't smoke. She had bad childhood asthma, and she didn't like his smoking from the beginning. But he was really nice, and she soon realized that smoking was a part of him; if she wanted to be with him, she was going to have to put up with it. Marriages are made of compromises.

But 20 years later she still wants him to quit. "Like any woman who really loves you and is looking out for your best interest, she's gonna want that," Pickrell says. They don't have kids, they don't have a dog -- he's all she's got; she'd like to keep him around. "I don't want to be a widow at 55," she says. "Eddie Rabbit died of lung cancer, and so did that guy who did the Ernest movies -- they were both in their early fifties, and he's 48."

She holds up his cigarettes and argues that she doesn't want him to die of cancer; she doesn't want to watch him die if he can prevent it. He ignores her. "Living somebody else's idea of my life would be misery," he says. "If there's a price to pay, I'll pay it."

She makes him get chest X-rays every year because she's afraid he'll get emphysema. But so far Pickrell's doctor hasn't seen any damage, and Pickrell has never considered quitting. "Never," his wife says with a sigh. "He'll never quit." She says that when he's buried in his coffin he'll have a cigarette in his hand.

When cigarettes were first banned on airplanes in the late '80s, Pickrell was one of the smokers who sneaked into the lavatory and lit up. The person after him ratted him out to a flight attendant who told Pickrell smoking wasn't allowed. He said he didn't care.

His biggest one-person protest was on a Friday night at West Oaks Mall. Pickrell was having an after-work cigarette and cup of coffee, passing out a few flyers and getting some more signatures. It was July 23, 1994. An officer told Pickrell to put out his cigarette; when he refused, Pickrell claims, the officer tackled him, cuffed him and took him downtown. After that his wife said he had to start protesting more peacefully and legally. The charges were dropped, but she didn't want to bring him bail money again. "No more macho crap," she told him.

That left him with letter-writing and sitting in the smoking section talking to smokers about how much he likes smoking. His first smokers' rights group, started by R.J. Reynolds, floundered and failed. The group divided among itself into cliques. Pickrell can't remember what they argued about; he just remembers that they never agreed.

No one wanted to do anything, and personal business cards get you only so far. He printed flyers and got signatures, but nothing really happened. Then he bought a computer. It was October 1997, and he couldn't afford long-distance phone calls to faraway towns for causes he cared about. In nine months he sent out 25,000 messages and got the e-mail addresses of 700 newspaper editors. His rants, editorials and letters have been published on the op-ed pages of papers such as USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News.

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