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.

His Web site, the Smoker's Network and Civil Liberties Alliance, has flashing red alerts mapping out where smokers are being persecuted as smoking bans are implemented. There are two mass mailing lists: one to chat, the other to discuss their oppression and people attacking Big Tobacco. For instance, health-conscious hippies in California banned smoking in almost all public places in Los Angeles. All those sandal-wearing, tofu-eating tree huggers took away tobacco. Pickrell has crossed that state off his map of America. "I would avoid it like the plague," he says.

He may lose another state soon. His e-mail is abuzz because people in New York City are trying to adopt Los Angeles laws. This isn't about smoking, Pickrell reiterates. "They want the power to dictate," he says.

Exercising their rights (from left to right): Helen Robb, Jeanie Karklin, Dave Pickrell and John Cummings at Denny's.
Exercising their rights (from left to right): Helen Robb, Jeanie Karklin, Dave Pickrell and John Cummings at Denny's.
Exercising their rights (from left to right): Helen Robb, Jeanie Karklin, Dave Pickrell and John Cummings at Denny's.
Deron Neblett
Exercising their rights (from left to right): Helen Robb, Jeanie Karklin, Dave Pickrell and John Cummings at Denny's.

Pickrell holds press conferences, but no one ever shows up. Aside from difficulty getting media attention, Pickrell's having trouble getting his followers to unite and work. There are hundreds of letters to write and lobbyists to call. He needs more members, he says. People call and send e-mails asking about joining the group, but they rarely make it to meetings. A zealous leader, Pickrell spends at least three hours a night sitting at his computer, chain-smoking and fighting for his rights. He gets up before the sun both Saturday and Sunday mornings working for his cause. Usually he stops at lunch to exercise (he spends weekend afternoons skating backward and dancing at the roller rink), but sometimes he works all day.

Like the earlier group, each member in this one has his own agenda. John Cummings mourns the world 40 years ago when he could smoke whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted. "In my day, everybody smoked," he says. "Eisenhower was a smoker and Churchill was a smoker; the only nonsmoker was Adolf Hitler." Smoking showed that a man was civilized, strong and sane. It was the time of John Wayne and the Marlboro Man. (But the Duke died of both lung and gastric cancer. And two of the original Marlboro men both got lung cancer and became avid antismoking crusaders before their deaths.) Cummings says his lungs are in fine shape, but his main concern is that smokers are charged more for health insurance.

Another member, Helen Robb, 70, joined with her brother, who has since died of lung cancer. She doesn't believe that smoking caused his death. She thinks the fact that he was overweight, didn't exercise and didn't take vitamins killed him. "I used to worry about him," she says. She doesn't think smoking caused his lung cancer; maybe working in his wood shop without a mask did. She was most outraged when officials banned smoking in shopping malls.

Then there's Kathie Ware, 50, whose father smoked unfiltered Camels and died of lung cancer when he was 48. Ware, director of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, says she didn't mind when smokers were asked to sit on the left side of movie theaters, and she didn't mind when they were shoved into a corner in the back. "When they took my corner away, that upset me," she says. Now she's not supposed to smoke in football stadia, restaurants and many hotels. "I'm scared," she says. Soon there won't be anyplace left to smoke.

In much of Europe, it's still like the old days; smokers light up in planes, trains and rented automobiles. (With the exception of Air France. The airline banned smoking on domestic flights ten years ago; as of November, smoking will be stamped out on North American and Caribbean flights. On transatlantic flights, attendants will hand out nicotine substitutes to distraught smokers.) Europe is the way it used to be, the way it should still be, if you ask Pickrell. Most restaurants don't have smoking sections because the whole place is a smoking section. On-line, Pickrell chats with overseas smokers. But he's not packing his bags. Those countrymen may have the freedom to smoke, but that's where their freedom ends.

"I'll stand and fight for the America I love," he says. "I won't turn my back. Whatever that entails, whatever that means. I'm very much a patriot. I'm very much in love with freedom -- to watch it just evaporate just kills me."

Three weeks ago Pickrell visited his family in Indiana. He has a brother who smokes a pipe, but all the cigarette smokers in his family have died. Their survivors don't own ashtrays. Still, his family didn't make Pickrell smoke outside.

"They know who I am," Pickrell says. He stubbed out his cigarettes on their dinner plates.

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