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Where did all the smokers go?

Tiffeney Leighton who can't smoke anywhere on the property of her rental apartment or on the the lawn of Petluma City Hall accross the street enjoys a cigarette on the sidewalk next to City Hall on Tuesday March 5, 2013.

Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat
Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 11:12 a.m.

When Michael Kyes first put a cigarette to his lips 50 years ago, he was a teen-ager trying to be cool.

“Everyone did it,” Kyes said. “The Marlboro Man was on TV. Baseball players all smoked.”

But now, the 64-year-old mayor of Sebastopol, like most people who still smoke in an increasingly smoke-free world, is a man in the shadows.

When he feels the craving to light up while out and about, Kyes, who burns through almost two packs a day, seeks cover. But where?

“In Sebastopol, it's still legal to smoke in parking lots. So you walk to the end of the parking lot, hoping nobody notices who you are, and hide. Behind a tree, or wherever. In a dark spot.”

When Kyes took up the habit, it was the Mad Men era of the late 1950s. Smoking was sophisticated, manly for a guy, sexy for a woman.

James Dean with a cigarette dangling from his lips was the epitome of cool. A slim, black holder in the hands of an Audrey Hepburn in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany's” became a chic fashion accessory. There were ashtrays and matches everywhere, and few places were off-limits to smokers, from airplanes to hospitals.

But a quarter-century of anti-smoking efforts has done what health advocates, concerned by the risks posed by second-hand smoke, had hoped. Smoking has been all but banished from the public square, turning it into an increasingly underground activity. Smokers now say they feel like outcasts.

“It's something I try to keep very undercover. It's why I call it closet smoking,” said Steve, a 48-year-old pilot from Healdsburg, who hides his habit from his kids, lighting up outside at the corner of his house, away from windows, when they're asleep.

“It used to be you were a bad boy to do it,” he said, requesting that his last name not be used because he keeps his smoking secret. “Now you're just plain bad.”

Many communities keep tightening the laws, first banning smoking in public buildings and businesses and then extending it to parks, plazas and most common areas outside. In cities like Petaluma and Santa Rosa, you can't even light up within 20 feet of any doorway, window, opening, crack or air vent.

Now Petaluma and the County of Sonoma have recently joined Sebastopol and other cities in the state in banning smoking in shared living spaces like apartments and condominiums.

So where have all the smokers gone?

Many have managed to kick the highly addictive habit. Consumption has dropped from 2.5 billion packs a year in 1988 to 970 million. Only 12 percent of Californians smoke, down from 18 percent 12 years ago.

Those who still smoke fight to quit, try to hide the smell with cologne and gum, and feel the weight of social stigma.

Tiffeney Leighton, who started sneaking butts from her parent's ashtrays as a kid, can't smoke in the common area outside her small apartment complex. So she heads out to the curb in front of Petaluma City Hall across the street whenever she needs a smoke. She said she's tried everything to quit and has been promised an electronic cigarette for her upcoming 35th birthday, hoping it will do the trick.

She's intimately aware of the health risks of smoking. She was a caregiver for her father, who died two years ago from cancer of the esophagus and lungs.

She tries to be considerate. But it's tough being a smoker in a culture that not only frowns on smoking, but is disdainful of smokers.

“It definitely makes you feel segregated from everybody else,” she admits. “And it's really given me the urge to quit smoking, not because I want to be socially acceptable, but I would rather not have people running away from me holding their nose. It makes you feel alienated.”

Leighton is a records management technician at the Drug Abuse Alternative Center within the county offices complex in Santa Rosa, where smoking is verboten. So on breaks, she and the few other people in her office who still haven't managed to kick the habit hit the sidewalk and keep walking. You can't stand and smoke, she said, but it's OK as long as you're moving.

One of the last refuges for smokers is their own cars, provided they don't have kids in the back seat. And for many, driving is a trigger to light up.

Bill Terstegge, 69, has tried for years to quit a habit he took up as a kid trying to immitate his dad. Now he's taking cessation classes. Lean economic times have forced the Sebastopol man to come out of retirement, and he knows he won't be able to smoke on the job.

He laments that he was born into a culture that pushed cigarettes and now has no empathy for the addiction he's left with, physically and emotionally.

“It's an absolute turnaround,” he said, “from what it was.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.)

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