Cross Town with deadly tobacco

Cross Town with Carl Dow

Today Hugo Chavez, tomorrow 100 million Chinese

'Carl, I'm afraid to come in here anymore. Every time I come back, someone's dead.'

(In memory of more than 15 of my peers in Montreal journalism killed by tobacco)

Last Monday, March 25, I nursed a glass of beer for a couple of hours at a pleasant pub called Irene's. It's located on the east side of Ottawa's Bank Street between Fifth and Homewood avenues.

Irene's has an old-fashioned atmosphere and stages excellent live music that respects traditional right up to the proverbial cutting edge. As I was hobbling out on crutches with the light of my life, I saw two men on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes. I looked down and saw what must have been hundreds of dead butts.

I said to the two smokers, Good Lord(!) if we gathered up all these butts we could make a fortune selling it all on the black market!

I quit tobacco in 1985. And today I'm entirely free of the urge to smoke. From time to time I wonder at the patience and forbearance of those who didn't smoke when about half the population did. A filthy, stupid habit, that's killed millions of innocent victims. Convinced that it would kill me, I decided to quit when the cost of a 20-pack reached one dollar. I didn't manage to escape until the weed was two dollars a pack.

Tobacco killed many of my friends in Montreal journalism between the ages of 45 and 55. After I moved away, I would reconnect during the Christmas holidays with a diminishing number of them at pubs in downtown Montreal, one of which was Minnie's on Crescent Street. I recall sitting at a bar with Ian Mayer. I was shocked when Ian pulled out a pack of Export A and offered one to me.

I declined, saying Ian, what the hell are you doing, still smoking? With all the information out there, you've got to know that you're committing suicide.

He shrugged and said, What does it matter? I don't want to end up old and senile in some old folks home. I said, but you won't pick the time. Tobacco will. We had a good time, as we always did, exchanging notes on the current state of our beloved trade and reminiscing. We parted with warm feelings and promised to meet again the following Christmas.

I never saw Ian Mayer again. That November he died of lung and throat cancer. The next time I saw journalist Bob Stewart in the same location, he said in a confidential tone, Carl, I'm afraid to come in here anymore. Every time I come back, someone's dead.

And dead they were. About 15 of them in our group all died of throat and/or lung cancer between the ages of 45 and 55. It's not scientific, of course, but my conclusion after watching my fellow scribblers take their unceremonious leaves, is that if cancer doesn't take you by or about the age of 55, then the cruel hand of emphysema will take you about ten years later when you choke to death.

The Grim Reaper doesn't get everyone of course. Some smoke and live to a hundred. But it's like walking through a mine field. If you don't have to walk through a mine field then don't do it.

Hugo Chavez was tragically lost to the world when he was 58. There was an incredible battle, but Chavez's mighty fighting spirit, and the efforts of top world class medicos, couldn't save him.

Of course, I don't know if he was a smoker. However, I've been led to believe that many, if not most, Venezuelan men are victims of tobacco. Hugo Chavez, with his background of poverty and military experience, make him a likely candidate. And the age fits.

The Venezuelan government suspects US venom is involved and is investigating. I wouldn't be surprised. The US has practiced assassination at least since World War II. It has been clear that Washington, including Obama, have hated Chavez for his success in leading his country to democracy.

But my bet is on tobacco as the villain.

And this finally brings me to the 100 million Chinese. I recall saying about 40 years ago that China didn't need to worry about over population. My information was that it was a nation of smokers. Cancer and other tobacco related diseases was sure to provide a festival of death for the Grim Reaper.

Now we learn that cancer has become so prevalent in China that special cancer urban centres have been and are being established. The government blames the epidemic on pollution.

But my bet is on tobacco as the villain.

Meanwhile, if you're still at it, butt out for good and give your body a fighting chance. You may still have time for . . .

Happy Trails