Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke is a mixture of the smoke that comes from the burning end of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe, and the smoke breathed out by the smoker. It contains more than 7,000 chemicals; hundreds of those chemicals are toxic and about 70 can cause cancer. There is no safe amount of secondhand smoke, even low levels of it can be harmful. The only way to fully protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke is not to allow smoking indoors. While secondhand smoke is not worse than active smoking, despite reports to the contrary, exposure to it causes disease, disability, and death. (Source of the above information: National Institutes of Health) Passive smoking, the breathing in of other people’s tobacco smoke, is a worldwide health problem, one I encountered in the US as well as in the GDR.

I have never been a smoker. That being said, I must admit that I did smoke a few cigarettes and several cigars while I was living in Ohio and teaching at Oberlin College (1969 to 1986). I enjoyed smoking a good cigar now and then, especially while playing poker with the guys, or while sipping fine cognac from a large snifter after a special meal such as Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It never occurred to me to smoke a cigar by myself; that act was always related to a social event of one sort or another. Once I went to an upscale cigar bar with a friend, but that was not a good experience. The air was filled with foul-smelling smoke, from which there was no escape. When smoking cigars, which I did infrequently, I took care not to inhale. In 1992, Bill Clinton famously admitted that he had attempted to smoke marijuana in the 1960s, but claimed he didn’t know how to inhale. The last time I smoked anything was in 1986, before I moved from Ohio to Delaware.

My parents were both smokers, and so were all of their relatives and friends. It was the fashionable thing to do and a sign of sophistication. Actors and actresses were always smoking in the movies I watched in the 1950s and 1960s. One cannot imagine Humphrey Bogart without the cigarette he kept in the corner of his mouth, seemingly never drawing on it or smoking it. Nobody made the cigarette look more impressive than Bogie. He made smoking look cool and brought it to a new level of popularity. Bogart and his fourth wife, the very glamorous and always-sultry actress Lauren Bacall, helped make the cigarette the genre-defining prop of film noir movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In the end, however, it brought him a painful and early death at age 57.

Children ages 10 to 14 are much more likely to take up smoking if they have seen actors smoke in the movies. My father quit smoking in 1950 at age 35; my mother smoked all her life, although she halfheartedly attempted to stop on many occasions. Both of my parents were aware that smoking is bad for one’s health and were determined to keep me from becoming a smoker. How were they going to do that? The answer is: through bribery. In 1954, when I was 11 years old and about to enter the 7th grade, my parents had a serious talk with me about the dangers of smoking, the addictive nature of cigarettes, and the importance of not starting to smoke in the first place. They proposed the following deal: If I would not smoke over the next ten years, they would give me either $500 or a gold watch worth more than that on my 21st birthday. $500 seemed like a fortune, so I was easily persuaded to accept this friendly bribe and promised to refrain from smoking. Every August, before I went back to school or college, my parents would remind me about our pact. I turned 21 on the 23rd of January during my senior year in college; the day of reckoning had finally arrived! When my parents asked, I told them that I had actually tried smoking a cigarette a few times in college, but really didn’t like it. They said a few cigarettes didn’t matter; I wasn’t a smoker and clearly was not going to become a smoker. My reward was $500, which I used to finance travel in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland that fall. My parents said it was money well spent.

While I was not tempted to start smoking in junior high school or high school, college was another story. I was in a fraternity and everyone smoked—not just at our weekend parties, but every single day, throughout the day. At parties the room would quickly become filled with secondhand smoke, which would get thicker and thicker as time went on. Everyone’s clothes reeked of cigarette smoke the next day. In classrooms, professors sometimes smoked while they were teaching, and most of them allowed their students to puff away during class sessions. Every classroom had a stack of aluminum ash trays—hard to imagine today! I was an oddball of sorts, the only student who didn’t smoke, or at least it seemed that way. But, determined to garner the $500 reward, I persevered.

In 1969, the year I started teaching at Oberlin College, the Public Health Smoking Act of 1969 required that all cigarette packaging contain this statement: WARNING: THE SURGEON GENERAL HAS DETERMINED THAT CIGARETTE SMOKING IS DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned cigarette ads from airing on television and radio. Anti-smoking forces hailed the new law that banned cigarette advertising in the broadcasting media as a major victory. The expectation was that this legislation would reduce the percentage of smokers in the population and the number of young adults adopting the smoking habit. But the percentage of adult smokers actually rose slightly following the ban.

Since smoking habits didn’t change right away, my personal battle against secondhand smoke was destined to continue. It was a problem in my own home when my wife and I entertained guests, also when we were invited to the homes of friends and colleagues who smoked. Most adults did smoke in those days, so whenever we had a dinner party at our place we needed to have ashtrays on hand. However, this frustrating situation began to come to an end in the spring of 1975, in a remarkable way. The person responsible was prominent East German writer and filmmaker, Ulrich Plenzdorf, who came to Oberlin as German Writer-in-Residence that spring. Uli (as all of us called him) was even more opposed to smoking than the Surgeon General and had a strict zero-tolerance smoking policy which he enforced resolutely—everywhere. Besides, he was our guest, so the polite thing to do was to totally refrain from smoking in his presence, which is precisely what everyone did.

Ulrich Plenzdorf set an example that I tried to follow, not only when he and his wife were in Oberlin, but after their departure as well. My efforts met with limited success in the beginning. I put away all of our ashtrays, hoping that guests would take the hint and not smoke. But that tactic was only partially successful, since the really addicted smokers would prowl through our living and dining areas, searching in vain for an ashtray—and then they would ask me for one. Guests were easily offended if I did not accommodate them immediately and cheerfully. In this transition period—transition to a NO SMOKING IN OUR HOUSE policy—I realized that Plenzdorf was right. A no smoking policy had to be enforced consistently and without exceptions. And that is exactly what we did. When we invited people to a party or reception, we let them know that our house was a “no smoking” zone. Most people accepted that, realizing that it was our house after all, and they visited with us. Plenzdorf, because of his celebrity status, was able to control the smoking situation in the houses of other persons and at public events involving him. It was very simple: if smoking was going to be permitted, he was not going to be present.

I first visited the Plenzdorfs at their spacious, beautifully appointed apartment in East Berlin in September 1975, at the beginning of my first sabbatical leave. This was the first of countless visits with them during the second half of that decade. Their apartment was on the third floor of a pre-WW II building with no lift, located at Wilhelm-Pieck-Str. 5 (renamed Torstrasse in the 1990s). The building had an ideal central location, right on the border of the popular districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, and just a short walking distance to the Alexanderplatz. In part because of its location and size, the Plenzdorfs’ apartment was a gathering place for their family members and their circle of friends, which included writers, actors, persons from the film industry, some doctors, and occasionally a few West German journalists. The Plenzdorfs did a lot of entertaining in their Berlin apartment; it was more convenient than a restaurant and they did not need to drive anywhere. At these evening gatherings, I observed two things: everyone contributed something to the party, often something that was homemade or difficult to come by in the GDR, and no one smoked. There was a small balcony one could access from the living room, but it was off limits to smokers. They had to go down several flights of stairs to the ground floor, exit the building and walk to an adjacent courtyard. Understandably, when visiting the Plenzdorfs, most people simply refrained from smoking.

What explains Ulrich Plenzdorf’s strong, lifelong aversion to cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke? I asked myself that very question in 1975 when he was our visiting German writer in Oberlin, and while visiting him in East Berlin in the fall of that year I found the answer. I discovered how widespread smoking was in the GDR, despite the efforts of government authorities to advance a campaign against it; it was permitted in most places of work, restaurants and bars, and other public places. Just as I had experienced as a college student in the 1960s, cigarette smokers were everywhere in East Germany and most adults smoked, especially men. For persons like Ulrich and Helga Plenzdorf, non-smokers who could not tolerate secondhand smoke, it was a dreadful situation.

East Germany’s most popular cigarettes were Cabinets, which contained about 50% more nicotine than most Western cigarettes, and more tar as well. This made them more dangerous to smokers, of course, and to the innocent bystanders who were exposed to hazardous levels of toxic secondhand smoke. Also, the quality difference between Western cigarettes and East German brands like f6, Juwel, and KARO was extreme. The socialist countries, East Germany included, could never purchase the tobacco they wanted; they had to settle for low-grade plants from Pakistan, India and Bulgaria. The fact that only low-quality cigarettes were available in the GDR didn’t matter to the smokers; they got used to smoking these cigarettes and didn’t know the difference. They liked them because they were addicted to the high level of nicotine.

Western brands of cigarettes were not sold on the open market in East Germany, but smokers eager to try them could buy them on the black market. Other sources of such cigarettes were relatives visiting from West Germany, who might bring along a few packs, and the state-run Intershops, where various goods from the West could be purchased with hard currency. The most popular Western brand was Marlboro, of course, then Lucky Strike and Camels. France’s iconic cigarette brands, Gauloise and Gitanes, were also sought after by the GDR’s elite, many of whom were in a position to acquire them with Western currency. Gauloise cigarettes were famous for their throat-stripping strength, especially in the original unfiltered verson. The brand has always been linked to international celebrities like Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and George Orwell, which made it a favorite among a number of the GDR’s writers and artists.

The GDR prided itself on being a nation of readers, referring to itself as “Leseland DDR” (literally: reading land GDR). While that was true and certainly something to be proud of, the GDR was also a nation of smokers. At least forty percent of East German adults had the habit, as compared to one third of West German adults. My three-volume book on East German writing in the 1970s, GDR Literature During the Thaw, (DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter) contains literary texts by 45 GDR writers, interviews I conducted with them and other pertinent information. There is also a full-page portrait photograph of each writer, most of which were taken by professional photographers in the 1970s. As I was writing this snapshot, I recalled that some of the authors were shown smoking in their photographs, so I took a closer look. To my surprise, four of the writers are pictured smoking a pipe; four others are shown smoking cigarettes, and one of those writers is crushing a cigarette butt in an ashtray. Only one of the smokers is a woman, Sarah Kirsch, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. Her appearance and pose make evident that she is an emancipated woman. Seated, she is looking straight at the camera with a serious expression on her face, a cigarette in her right hand, held high. For her, the cigarette clearly is a “torch of freedom” in a society where many people viewed smoking as socially unacceptable behavior for women.

In memoriam

Ulrich Plenzdorf was born in Berlin on October 26, 1934. He died in Berlin on August 9, 2007, shortly before his 71st birthday. He departed this world much too soon, leaving behind his wife Helga and three adult children. I wrote this piece not only to honor and remember him in a very personal way, but also to reveal a few interesting things about his person and life that not very many of his readers know. He and I had many things in common beyond our mutual, deep-seated aversion to smoking and secondhand smoke. Uli was one of the most creative and talented writers I have known. He was also a man of principle and my friend. I miss him.

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