One of Mayor Bloomberg's signature initiatives has been the de-smoking of New York. Under his administration the city has seen smoking disappear not just in bars, most recently it was banned in parks and public beaches. And he's had a relatively easy target. Thanks to health concerns smoking in the past few decades has earned bad reputation. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its defenders. If you've been following the debate over the years, you've probably noticed a quote or two from Audrey Silk, the head of New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment (NYC CLASH). On the eve of last week's City Council vote we caught up with Silk on the phone to get a sense of the debate from the other side. That we got to learn about growing your own tobacco in New York City was just a bonus—are backyard tobacco plantations the new rooftop apiaries?

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Audrey Silk, founder of NYC CLASH
So, I'm assuming you're a smoker?

I am, but it is irrelevant.

And you used to be a police officer? Yes I was. I did my 20 years.

Do you want to tell me how CLASH got started? Sure—(squawking in the background) By the way, that noise you're hearing in the background is my parrot, just so you know. When I get on the phone he gets on the phone—Anyway, CLASH got started in 2000 in response to then-governor Pataki—I had been dabbling in information about smoking and the issues surrounding smoking prior to that. But when I saw him get on the TV at the end of '99 and say he was going to raise the tax on cigarettes to increase revenue and to "help people to quit," it pushed a button. I got active. I started out being privately, individually active. Three months later the city council was holding hearings to "review" the 1995 smoking ban. By then I had learned that review doesn't mean review, it means "what more can we do?" so I went down to testify, seeing as they always hear from special interest groups, and men and women in ties. I thought, "They need to hear from the people!" Turns out they don't want to hear from the people, they want to hear from organized organizations. And so CLASH was born. There's my long story.

But it hasn't really gone so well in the past decade, has it? Nope, it hasn't. Although, I must say, we've kept them on their toes. I think things would be happening much more quickly if there was no push back. The issue isn't dead, contrary to what Bloomberg keeps saying. We keep the issue alive, because the minute it goes silent from our side, that's it.

Absolutely. A commenter on one of our posts about a proposed smoking ban recently said something like, "Anti-smoking alarmists portrayed a subset of the population as veritable pariah." I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on how exactly that happened? Well, when you are well-funded—and that's another thing, I mean how can we get anywhere, we have no connections to tobacco companies whatsoever, no funding and no communication of any sort. Nickel and dimes is how we're working, a lot of it is out of my own pocket.

Have tobacco companies reached out to you at all? No.
Maybe over the last 10 years I had a conversation—y'know, just a general, really meaningless conversation. Maybe two or three times in over 10 years. And nothing in the last five years, that's for sure. Because the minute you become associated with them... This is how the anti-smokers have been able to keep us penniless—they've been very successful at making that industry the Big Evil Tobacco Company. And anybody associated with them is immediately tarred and feathered as a mouthpiece for the tobacco companies, or their shells or front groups. Many times they'll still say "tobacco companies and their allies" in the same breath as if we are associated. Trying to take us down as well. And when I say us, I don't just mean my organization but also other smoker's rights organizations.

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(via atomische's flickr)

Look, we have zero funding. Everybody who is involved are working people, people who can't make it to city council hearings at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon on a weekday and we are up against millions and millions of dollars. And guess where the anti-smokers are getting their dollars? Tobacco. I mean this is how they are funded. Through the settlement agreement and taxes. And their settlement agreement is just a hidden tax—the tobacco companies aren't paying that penalty, they raised the price on a pack of cigarettes. So the smokers are paying it.

How much are you paying for a pack nowadays? I roll my own. I don't just roll my own, I grow my own.

In the city? Mmmhmm.

That's awesome. Do you use hydroponics? How do you do that? No, I'm in a situation a lot of people don't get to enjoy. I have my own house with my own backyard.

And the crop will grow up here? You can grow this crop anywhere.

And—I don't know why there would be—but there aren't any laws against growing it? Nope, as long as you aren't selling it.

That is a really interesting way to get around the taxes I mean it is labor intensive. But the way I get focused to keep going is I sit at the table rolling them going "screw you Bloomberg, screw you Bloomberg, screw you Bloomberg."

I was about to ask for your thoughts on those who say smoking is becoming a pastime for the rich, but it sounds like you've already got a solution. Well, except for the people who can't do this in their homes. But I never really finished with your question about smokers becoming pariahs and the anti-smokers agenda. This has been a thirty-year-plus campaign by the anti-smokers. They have been a very patient group. You have to give credit where credit is due. They have been patient, they have executed a blueprint that was incremental. They slowly were able to—by their public service announcements, by placing media attention, by forming these nice looking formal groups—build the message that smoking is abnormal. Or, to use their words exactly, to "denormalize" smoking and to make it socially inacceptable through things like bans. Because if you can't smoke inside it means it is unacceptable. All the second hand smoke bullshit is really just a tool on their road to their smoker-free utopia. Not smoke-free, smoker-free.

What is the ultimate goal of CLASH—do you have a similar roadmap? The best we can do is keep beating the drum. This is private property rights issue, this is an ethics in science issue—the absolute lies that government officials, like Commissioner [Thomas] Farley, tell. He's prostituting his position for a moral agenda. He's completely abandoned science in order to push an ideology.

Can you elaborate on that a little? Yeah. To say that proof exists that—right now the issue is banning smoking outdoors—that there is any valid or legitimate evidence that anyone is harmed, or to portray it as such, is to betray the field of science. There is no valid scientific evidence. I may be Audrey Silk, no letters after my name, but there are people with degrees out there who are saying this. I've taken epidemiology 101—over ten years I've had to learn to decipher all their studies—and anyone who has done their homework knows that there is nothing legitimate about the science that they are producing to push their agenda. It is activist driven science. The people who are coming out with these studies are the same ones who appear on ALL the studies on second-hand smoke.

Now just so we are clear, you are not denying that there are medical issues with first-hand smoke? No! And thank you for saying that. Because the minute I start talking about second-hand smoke people try and conflate the two. But they are separate. And I have a three sentence answer to that debate: "Tobacco and smoking are legal. We have been utterly informed about the risks of smoking and though I believe they are exaggerated I do believe it is risky. Now leave me alone to make my informed decision as an adult." That is the end of the debate when it comes to primary smoking.

My late father, who smoked for half a century, completely agreed with you. Good for him. It is such a shame when people are like "I have family members who died of smoking" and now they are all active against smoking. So what you are doing is you are dishonoring their memory by calling them stupid after the fact. You are calling your own family members stupid! How is that honoring them? It just drives me crazy.

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Maybe not the last time you'll be seeing this (via flysi's flickr).

I can tell. So, what do you think of the smoking ban in parks and beaches? [Ed. this interview took place before the City Council voted to approve the ban]

It is an affront to civil liberties what is going on. When you listen to Councilwoman [Gale] Brewer, who is the sponsor of this bill—at the behest, I would think, of Bloomberg. He found the person who would take his idea and put it on paper—she is saying that this is the way to make people quit smoking. By making it as difficult as possible. They are, through force of legislation, trying to control legal behavior. They are trying to remove it from sight. To have smoking be visible means it is acceptable to do—this is the thought police now. But they masquerade it as a second-hand smoke issue! "We want a healthy state," they say. But that denies me of my individualism. (squawk) He's talking for me back there (squawk) I'm not some tally mark on a sheet. I'm an individual.
Anti-smoking is an ideological crusade that has infected every corner, from legislators to businesses who say they are not going to hire smokers to building owners to college campuses that believe that smokers are the approved group to practice totalitarianism against. "We don't want you to smoke, we don't think you should smoke, so we are going to enact laws to prevent you from doing it." This is the nanny state.

In the face of all of these bans, what is a smoker to do? When we get to these outdoor bans and whatnot. Bans that are indefensible on any level, socially or scientifically, there is only one response. Civil disobedience. There comes a point where civil disobedience is the only response.

Now I saw that you've actually written on your website specifically against that considering your history on the force. And you know what? Shame, shame, shame on me. For years... I've been retired going on seven years now. I should have taken that down a long time ago. I put that up when I was still on the job. I couldn't outright come out say it. I was like, "I can't do it... but you can." But nobody really caught my drift.

Are we heading to some kind of smoking prohibition? This is the other side of the mirror of alcohol prohibition. In that prohibition you were allowed to drink—there was no law against drinking alcohol, there was a law against producing it. Now what you have are laws against smoking and no laws against producing it.

Have you talked to any of the civil liberties unions? The ACLU? They are as anti-smoking as the next group.

And the New York Civil Liberties Union? Yes! Oh, it is horrible. They pick and choose their causes. It is a civil liberties issues, but they pick and choose their fights.

Do you think we should have a smoker's rights day? It'll manifest all on its own without any help. There has been a smoking ban in parks, in playgrounds, for years. I've never brought it up, because I don't want attention brought to it. But does anybody know about it? No. And the same thing is going to happen with the smoking bans in parks and beaches. You can't enforce it. As a police officer I am telling you right now it is unenforceable from the NYPD's point. This is feel-good legislation so they can say "I've done this." They can't do anything else! They can't balance the budget. But this they can say, because it is a popular idea—by virtue of 70% of the population not smoking makes it popular. We can't fight them, we are trying to reason with the irrational. You can't reason with religious cults, so what is left? Civil disobedience.

But, to play devil's advocate, people can also say you can't reason with addicts and that smokers are just addicts. Well, many non-smokers agree with us. We have non-smokers who are members. There are well known non-smoking columnists who agree this is wrong. That "they are addicts" thing is just an excuse. We're standing on a principle.