One of my favorite comic strips is “Non Sequitur” by Wiley Miller. I wish The Tribune printed it bigger. A recent one showed the grandmother/waitress character saying, in her New England accent, “I can remember when gettin’ a tattoo was an act of rebellion, not confahmity.”
That helped me to understand why I started smoking when I was 11 or 12. I wanted to conform, to belong to the group. I call it the herd instinct.
I think the herd instinct is why some people keep smoking despite the piles of evidence that tobacco has killed millions of smokers. For some smokers, it seems no amount of evidence can beat the herd instinct when it’s reinforced by the addictive power of nicotine.
I remember reporting two similar fires in Paso Robles. They probably happened eight or 10 years apart and involved two different elderly women. Each woman caught her bed on fire by smoking in bed while connected to oxygen equipment.
But today, I’m not writing one of my usual tirades against tobacco companies. No, my topic today is the county supervisors’ vote Tuesday to outlaw outdoor smoking in several county parks and on some other county properties. They did this because scientists say smokers’ secondhand smoke can hurt nonsmokers even outdoors.
That “Non Sequitur” comic strip made everything clear to me, at least for an hour or two. It showed me that the reason I started smoking was to conform. It’s the same reason some boys now wear their jeans low enough to show their boxers or their rear cleavage. It isn’t rebellion; it’s “confahmity.”
My first cigarette didn’t give me any new, forbidden pleasure. It just made me so dizzy I had to get off my bike and lie down beside the road. But I kept smoking because the other kids smoked. And then there was Humphrey Bogart and all the other people who were always smoking so coolly.
I finally quit about 20 years later when the surgeon general reported the connection between smoking and cancer. Fortunately, I scare easily.
Anyhow, supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday to ban smoking in the county’s mini-parks, neighborhood parks and community parks, and near county buildings and other places. But I’m glad they didn’t try to ban all tobacco products everywhere.
That would have made things worse, just as the prohibition of alcohol did in the early 20th century, or as the prohibition of marijuana seems to do now. If tobacco were prohibited, we’d probably see promoters rushing in to organize medicinal tobacco cooperatives.
Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than four decades. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.