Alice Wheeler

Okay, everybody, take a deep breath.

The world hasn't ended. Your social life didn't collapse on December 8. The bars and clubs are still full of people. The only difference is you don't come home from a night out reeking of formaldehyde, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and dozens of other deleterious ingredients found in cigarettes, which contain at least 60 known carcinogens. Feel that sensation? It's your immune system shifting into a higher gear.

For people like me—a nonsmoking music fanatic who loves to attend shows and whose job requires that I spend many hours a week in bars and clubs—the passage of Initiative 901 has been a godsend. After a quarter century of clubbing, I'd formed a fatalistic attitude about such a law ever being instituted; I previously lived in Detroit and Cleveland, blue-collar cities where smoking is considered an Olympic sport. Obviously it's too soon to gauge how the smoking ban's going to play out economically, and the 25-foot rule has few fans (and fewer enforcers, it seems), but among the people—both smokers and nonsmokers—with whom I've discussed the matter, the initiative's impact has been overwhelmingly positive.

Although I gathered signatures to get 901 on the ballot and frequently posted on The Stranger's Forums arguing for its passage, the last thing I want to do is gloat. I've already dredged up enough rancor with my comments on the subject. The debate has raged for months and is just now showing signs of abating.

Anti-901ers lividly outline a litany of negatives that will result from this law: the violation of smokers' "rights"; the gall of government telling private businesses what to do; the difficulties and legal amorphousness of enforcement; the imminent decline of Washington's bars, clubs, and diners; poor single mothers and other unfortunates will lose their jobs; the total loss of one's rock 'n' roll lifestyle and, indeed, one's very identity, which is apparently inextricably linked to a perpetually burning stick of carcinogens. (See the Forum thread "No smokin' in bars? There goes my whole lifestyle!") Another popular counterpunch: Secondhand smoke actually isn't that harmful—its effects have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes by fascists and nanny-state lovin' do-gooders who want to control every aspect of our lives. And, hey, if you're so concerned about air quality, why not tackle the greater problem of industrial pollution and vehicle exhaust? Some of these complaints are legit; some are frivolous, irrelevant, or erroneous.

Now, some of my best friends smoke, and while they haven't held my views against me (I think), some naturally harbor suppressed hostility. However, a true friend doesn't idly watch loved and liked ones continually hurt themselves (and others around them; yes, it is my business when my nostrils are violated). Seeing someone smoke is akin to witnessing a person saw his jugular vein with a butter knife... in slow motion. Sure, it seems harmless now, if odd, but eventually the situation becomes life threatening. Why wait till blood's spurting to pipe up in alarm?

One thing is certain: This issue is like the weather—it affects everybody except shut-ins, and people can't stop chattering about it, often in hostile tones. Further, smoking in public is also one of society's most polarizing topics, along with abortion, analog vs. digital, Beatles vs. Stones, and paper vs. plastic.

So, why do I care so much about public smoking, besides the abovementioned facts about my music-journalism job and passion for sounds heard on big systems outside of my apartment? We have to backtrack about 40 years to get to the origins of my activism. The first word I ever uttered was "ashtray." Too richly ironic, huh? But it's the truth. My mother will vouch for me.

Both of my parents were smokers. My dad quit cold turkey in 1973 after I drew his attention to a TV talk-show segment about smoking's perils; the photo of a smoker's lung that looked like a black leather handbag sealed the deal. Cancer cured my mom's habit in 2000. Born in the '30s, they'd started smoking as teens, way before the 1964 Surgeon General's warning about cigarettes' dangers.

Throughout the '60s and early '70s, I grew up in a heinous haze of tobacco smoke and developed a precocious disgust for it. Mom habitually smoked in the bathroom and I'd literally gasp for breath when I entered it, wondering if this was what concentration-camp ovens smelled like. Just as force-feeding a child beef every meal will turn her into a vegetarian, my parents' poisonous habits prepped me for a life of antismoking zealotry.

At age 12, I finally begged my mother not to smoke around me. She considerately confined her puffing to outdoors and the downstairs laundry room. In all other regards, she was an ideal mother and I love her more than anything. (I'm sad to report that she's currently undergoing chemo treatment for lung cancer.)

My mother's trajectory follows that of many other relatives of mine with weaknesses for tobacco (I have an absurd number of aunts and uncles, many of whom smoked and perished largely because of it). It's such a depressing topic, especially if you're a young hipster who thinks you'll never suffer for your indulgences. But as I mark my 25th year of clubbing, I've been pondering more than ever the ramifications of all those nights spent breathing other people's toxins.

The subject obviously pushes sensitive buttons for many, including me. In addition to my mother's struggle with cancer, I worry about the consequences of all my secondhand smoking and often curse my decision to go into music journalism—I mean for reasons other than dismal pay. Film, theater, visual art, and literary critics don't have to be cardiovascular masochists like people in my field must become. Now, Washington nonsmokers who simply want to experience bands and DJs can get their sonic fixes without the chronic thought of future oncology-ward visits.

During the first weekend after 901's institution, I noticed that fidgeting had increased by about 59 percent and scowling had also become more prevalent, but, damn, the air sure was a delight to inhale. Such a simple pleasure now has taken on an unexpected magnitude. I ventured to Canterbury on Friday night and to Cha Cha on Sunday—both establishments infamous for their Philip Morris–sponsored stenches. Lo and behold, every breath I took was decidedly not an act of abject masochism. In fact, the air smelled like victory. Saturday night I frequented Re-bar, a venue that normally brings me to tears with its acrid aroma. Not this time. I gladly let DJ Jerry Abstract pummel me with hard techno jams till 2:00 a.m., with nary a cough or watery orb on my part. A gaggle of nicotine aficionados puffed outside the door (more like 25 inches than feet) and nobody harassed them. Harmony reigned.

I'm not alone in thinking that 901 could actually boost business in clubs and bars and generally raise the morale of clubbers and the folks who serve them. According to Stranger intern Robin Pecknold, who works at Bimbo's, a restaurant adjoining the Cha Cha, Saturday night was packed. Testimonials from Seattle's electronic-music scene point to widespread acceptance. Rockers in town may feel more intransigent about 901, and probably will feel "persecuted" indefinitely—or until Keith Richards croaks. Let's hope that's just a phase.

"[901 is] actually a great thing," promoter Yvette Soler says. "Usually on my weekly club night (Contour on Thursday), I come home with a sore throat and feeling like I just smoked two packs (I'm not a smoker). [December 8], no sore throat and my clothes didn't stink. It was nice to be able to sit in the club and talk to people without coughing. I have had several DJs call me saying that now that the smoking ban is in effect, they are ready to be booked.

"All of my smoking friends still go to the clubs; they just smoke outside," Soler continues. "I think there will be some people that will stop going out as much, but I believe that it will be far fewer than the people that start coming out because they don't have to worry about smoke inhalation."

DJ Kristina Childs, a smoker who co-runs Re-bar's monthly techno event Krakt, says, "It's nice being able to dance and breathe at the same time. How [901] will affect attendance is still too early to tell. If it affects it at all, it will most likely be to increase turnout; I highly doubt it will keep people from coming out."

"[During] my first gig post-I-901 [it] was a delight to not be surrounded by smoke for four or five hours while I was spinning," KEXP/Triple Door jock Greg Jaspan observes. "I voted against I-901 because I don't think government should be mandating what legal activities people can and can't do in bars and related establishments (and also because of the stupid 25-foot rule), but I must admit that it makes my life as a DJ a lot more pleasant."

Local producer KFO (Bryan Newman) reports that "at the Laptop Battle on Friday night, I was struck by how livable Chop Suey had suddenly become. I stepped outside to share a smoke with some friends, and it was freezing-ass cold, but nobody bitched about 901. The 25-foot rule wasn't enforced at all, and to top it off, I think my hangover was dramatically reduced by my having been in a mostly clean air environment all night."

"I love it," enthuses Alejandro Gutierrez-Rios. "I have already noticed a difference in the way I feel, the quality of my voice (I'm a vocalist).

"The Laptop Battle was packed and I didn't hear anyone complaining. I even shouted out about it to see what people thought and there were many nods of approval."

While the positive reviews stream in, there was one dissenter: "Something negative I did notice [at the Laptop Battle] was far more B.O. and a lot of farts and food smells," gripes Andrew Luck. "It was really gross. Bring back the smoke, 'cause people smell even worse when you get that many in a room."

segal@thestranger.com