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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)

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.

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