Antismokers Get Physical

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November 19, 2002

THE anti-smoking climate in the city is getting so fanatical, indignant non-smokers are taking the fight to the streets. Literally.

I was nearing a busy intersection at 47th and Sixth last Friday night when she hit me.

I lit up when I walked out of my Midtown office ("Hi, my name is Johanna, and I'm an addict . . . ").

I was walking down Sixth Avenue when a very small woman came barreling across in front of me. She made it look like she was adjusting her backpack, but she reached up and hit me in the arm - hard, with a closed fist.

Stunned and with an aching arm, I quickly walked after her. She turned around, saw my angry face hovering a foot above her, and blurted: "Oh, you want to . . . uh, uh, your god-damn cancer stick."

Right there she admitted that she'd assaulted my body because I was smoking. Outside. In the open air. On the street. In New York City.

She had physically attacked me not because she felt threatened in any way, but just because I dared to smoke. Outside. In New York City.

It was a vicious, pre-emptive strike: I hadn't blown smoke in her face - I was just walking along, smoking.

But when I called her on it, the outraged health nut melted into a fearful, stammering illiterate - because she knew she was wrong.

(OK, and because I'm 6 feet tall.)

She grabbed her cell phone from her backpack and said she'd call 911. "Good," I said, taking a step closer. "You just assaulted me, and that's illegal. Smoking on the street is not."

At that point, she stepped three feet backward and started kicking at me, coming nowhere near my body.

So, here I am in Midtown, with this weirdo dancing around flailing and kicking at me like a raving lunatic - because of a cigarette.

(Think about the irony: We're a block from Times Square, famous historic home of endless debauchery, and I'm getting attacked for smoking a cigarette?!)

At one point in her kicking, she lost her balance, all the while gritting her teeth and generally foaming at the mouth.

I started laughing. "What are you doing?" I jeered, a smile on my face.

By now a crowd had gathered, "Who's she kicking at?" asked one lady.

Infuriated and embarrassed and WRONG, the woman turned around and ran away.

How many other smokers has she assaulted? Clearly, no one had ever taken her to task for her anti-social outbursts. Still, this seemingly normal New Yorker thought she had the right to hit and kick a smoker on the street.

Obviously, my squirrely friend wasn't normal at all. Only extremist zealots - like terrorists - use physical violence as a solution.

But when cities across the country, and now our own Mayor Bloomberg, are raving about smokers as public enemy No. 1, it gives ammunition - permission - to fanatics like my anger-management case. A smokers' right to not be physically assaulted is coming into question.

This can't be what the mayor has in mind, can it? Creating a climate of fear for private citizens engaged in legal activities? Mature, professional, tax-paying folks - who are breaking no law - facing open hostility in the street?

It's one thing to wave your hand in front of your nose when you pass a smoker - and that's pretty ridiculous if you're out in open air. But my experience takes the game to another level entirely: Government-sanctioned lynching.

I know smoking is bad for my health - and I shouldn't do it. But (in the ever-fewer places where it's still legal in this city) that's still my choice.

No matter what the tobacco-wackos think about it.



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