Sasso (Prime cigarettes, two packs a day) and Ludlow (Benson & Hedges, one pack a day) are fed up with public ridicule and segregation. They're tired of getting shunted outside and glared at by anti-smokers; they're sick of feeling like pariahs, spat upon by pious purists. They want to puff (and, admittedly, perhaps die young) in peace. More important, they want to blow holes in new anti-smoking laws, and they've embarked on a campaign to unite fellow smokers in one whopping, ash-dropping, liberating conflagration.
The name of the political action committee they formed late last month: Fight Ordinances and Restrictions to Control and Eliminate Smoking, or FORCES of San Francisco.
And they don't need a match, thank you. They've got this year's California anti-smoking law -- and an even more restrictive one passed in Palo Alto last month -- to light their political fires.
"What we believe in is free choice," says Sasso, 38, who works at Always Tan and Trim in the Castro, and who knows his position is about as popular these days as snot on a doorknob. Still, he's a pro-choice activist from way back -- he marched down Sixth Avenue in New York for gay liberation back in 1970. He's been emphatically pro-choice in the matter of abortion. And the struggle for smokers' rights has him psyched enough of late to keep him talking over lunch until his pasta grows cold.
"We live in a society where people have to compromise and put up with things," says Sasso. "What if you don't drive a car? Sixty-five percent of urban pollution is caused by automobiles. And yet, people don't go around screaming at drivers. But they'll yell at me for smoking."
Sasso, the group's president -- like Ludlow, the group's treasurer -- believes that smoking restrictions should be up to business owners and individuals -- not the government. And so the two men joined forces and formed FORCES. They've petitioned and put up fliers in the Castro -- and watched hostile cig-haters tear them down. Sasso has gotten in at least two scuffles over his smoking stance, and imagines there will be more.
"I know about the opposition," says Sasso. "I'm ready for it."
Both men say they're neither affiliated with, nor have received any help from, the tobacco industry -- which happens to provide financial and organizational support to more than 50 smokers' rights groups nationwide, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a nonprofit group in Berkeley. Tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris also offer smoker hot lines -- call them, and they'll mail you a smokers' rights group start-up kit. They'll also give your name to one of dozens of tobacco industry "field coordinators," whose job it is to organize smokers' rights protests, particularly when local governments are readying to pass restrictive laws.
But Sasso and Ludlow say their idea had nothing to do with the tobacco powers.
"We're doing this on our own," Sasso says. "What we're looking for is reasonable accommodation. We're not against rational restrictions, but we believe this has become very much like all the other choice issues: Certain people feel they have the right to control you because you're doing something harmful. And I think all adults have to make our own decisions, whether to smoke cigarettes or cigars or whether to drink alcohol. Banning and stopping and prohibiting is not going to stop anybody from doing anything."
There are reasons, of course, for the banning and stopping and prohibiting. According to the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights and the American Lung Association:
Smoking-related diseases -- key among them heart disease, lung cancer, and emphysema -- kill more Americans than homicides, AIDS, auto accidents, suicides, and alcoholism combined, making cigarettes the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths. An estimated 419,000 die each year because of smoking, or more than half the population of San Francisco.
Secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers each year, the American Lung Association claims.
Secondhand smoke contains about 40 carcinogens, including cyanide, arsenic, and benzene: Some smoke-filled rooms hold six times more air pollution than busy highways.
In California, 200 to 300 minors start smoking every day. About 150 of those will become addicted to nicotine; one out of three will eventually die of smoking-related illnesses.
"Nationwide, about a quarter of the adult population smokes," says Scott Thomas, director of tobacco education for the American Lung Association of San Francisco and San Mateo counties. In health-conscious California, fewer adults are lighting up than ever before: About 15 percent of adults were smoking cigarettes this year, compared with nearly 27 percent in 1988, state health statistics show. The bad news in the state, however, is that the adolescent smoking rate is rising, from about 9 percent in 1990 to about 11 percent last year. About 90 percent of smokers acquire the habit before the age of 21.
And everyone is affected, says Thomas. "There's no doubt that secondhand smoke causes problems: Studies show that even the pets of smokers have higher cancer rates, leukemia and stuff like that," he says. If you live or work around smoke -- if you're a bartender, for example -- you're forced to inhale about 4,000 chemicals, he adds.
"I mean, it's not a joke," says Thomas. "We're not for outlawing cigarettes, but our focus is on nonsmokers' rights: Should they have to breathe smoke? And what are teen-agers' rights? People say they want a choice in the matter, but what choice do young people have when they're already hooked?"
Responding to those arguments, among many others, dozens of states and cities have put into place legislation that forces smokers out of the workplace, and onto the sidewalks.
Most noticeable in California was Assembly Bill 13, which went into effect on Jan. 1. The law banned smokers from almost all enclosed workplaces, including offices, public buildings, and restaurants, with exemptions for bars and smoke shops.
On Sept. 26, Palo Alto took the law a step further -- and made sure smokers did the same -- when it passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to smoke within 20 feet of any public doorway, which for the most part bans smoking on downtown sidewalks. Under the law, people are allowed to smoke near doorways only if they're walking by.
For Sasso and Ludlow, the Palo Alto law (which mimics similar legislation passed in Davis in 1993) foreshadows a grim future in which smokers are ever more excluded from the public realm. Under the state law, they note, even smoking in bars will be outlawed in 1997, unless the Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopts special ventilation guidelines for bar owners to follow.
"Right now, I don't actually think there is such a thing as smokers' rights," says Ludlow, a computer specialist at -- incongruously -- the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "I'm entitled to smoke in my house and in my back yard with no interference; that's about it," Ludlow says.
Ludlow and Sasso met after Sasso last fall began writing smokers' rights letters to local newspapers, drawing many irate responses. Ludlow's own spirits were sinking with the knowledge that the new anti-smoking law would soon kick in. "In late December," says Ludlow, "I got very angry and actually depressed, and then I became obsessed and started reading anything that had to do with smoking." When he saw Sasso's name -- and all the hate mail he was generating -- Ludlow decided to show support, write Sasso, and ask him if he knew of any local smokers' rights groups to join.
Haven't heard of any, Sasso replied.
The two began considering the possibility of forming an organization of their own. By March, Sasso hit the streets with a petition to halt "excessive restrictions" on smokers; about 300 people signed. By this summer, he and Ludlow were stapling fliers around town and dodging occasional fists. "One guy was ripping them down as soon as we put them up, and Ray had to just push this one guy out of the way," recalls Ludlow. "He was a big guy, too."
"I'm not saying that smoking doesn't affect your health," says Sasso. In fact, Sasso's mother, a smoker, died of lung cancer. Sasso says he thought about quitting after her death, but the truth is, he really didn't want to. "I enjoy smoking," says Sasso, who sneaked his first puff when he was only 13. It was a Kent cigarette, he recalls. "I've been smoking for almost 30 years now," he says.
What Sasso and Ludlow want is for businesses to make their own decisions. Coffee shops that want the smoke-and-sip set would allow smoking. Restaurants that didn't want the air defiled would ban it. Airlines would offer a few flights for smokers each day. Businesses would designate smokers' lounges.
"I think it's really unfortunate that this has somehow gotten into the political realm," Ludlow says.
Sasso has tried the same argument with San Francisco supervisors -- and not gotten very far. Taking a pro-smoking stance these days would be as much a political kiss of death, as -- well, as smoking. Supervisor Angela Alioto has recently written legislation that would make it illegal for stores to display self-service cigarette dispensers, which tempt shoplifting and make it easy for teen-agers to grab smokes without being questioned about their age. Cities throughout the state are turning their attention to sting operations and new crackdowns to keep stores from selling cigarettes to minors.
Ludlow and Sasso, against this great tide, know they have a lot of swimming to do. But they also believe in a quiet, hidden sea of angry smokers who want to stop apologizing for smelling badly, bearing teeth stains, scumming up their lungs, and polluting the air.
"There will be a backlash in California," says Sasso. "And we will be at the forefront.