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Should I butt out of my boyfriend's friends' smoking habits?

The question

I have been dating someone for seven months, and I enjoy spending time with his friends and family.

But the whole group smokes, including my boyfriend when he's with them, and I don't. It's gotten to a point where I'm left alone inside while they go outside to smoke in a little group, or if I go outside, I have to stand off to the side.

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They also smoke in the car, albeit with the windows open, but we usually take road trips together. I don't have an allergy or asthma, and I grew up with a family that smoked, so I don't feel like saying anything that could prompt a "smug non-smoker" reaction. But if I don't, I fear it's going to have a serious effect on my relationship with my boyfriend because I'm going to want to go out with them less. He has agreed to not smoke when we are all together, but I don't know if I have the right to ask them to change their habits. What should I do?

The answer

I'm probably a perfect person to ask a question about smoking. I've wrestled with that highly tenacious back-monkey my entire life.

For a couple of decades, now, I've been able (mostly) to keep it down to two a day, with a special exception for parties, when all bets are off and you'll find me on the porch.

So on one hand, I feel a certain highly qualified smugness that I've managed to keep it under control, more or less.

On the other hand, I've had enough lapses that I understand well the tormented self-loathing of the true smoker. This summer I was on the set of a TV show, and there was sort of a culture of smoking on the set, and blah blah blah (insert numerous tortured self-excoriations and attempts at self-exculpation here). Anyway, of the many ways I let myself go this summer, one was smoking during the day.

My self-loathing burns like a red-hot ember when one of my kids catches me in the act - particularly Adam, our youngest. When we have people over, he'll burst out onto the porch like the Spanish Inquisition. If I'm not able to fob my cigarette off on one of my guests fast enough - or if he astutely questions why that guest is apparently smoking two cigarettes - he goes into his act.

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He's like Sir Laurence Olivier as King Lear, raging on the heath, gesticulating for maximum histrionic effect: "Why, why, why? I've got a dad who's gonna die!"

And what are you supposed to say to that? I've tried to confuse him by throwing a logical smokescreen around my tobacco-tainted actions: "Look at it this way, Adam: You kids know that candy's bad for you, but you want it anyway. Well, that's kind of like how it is with adults and cigarettes."

He's completely dismissive of this line of reasoning, as well he should be.

In any case, I feel like I can see the issue from all sides. And I think your way is clear with your boyfriend's smoking fiends - oops, I mean, friends. First of all, you're well within your rights to ask them to refrain from filling the vehicle with their fumes on road trips. Res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself. Or, to use more contemporary terminology: Duh! Even with the windows open, it's a pretty closed environment, and their right to smoke ends where the tips of your pristine pink lungs begin.

I don't know how they'll wind up servicing their habit on the road - pull over, go down in the ditch, smoke and jump back in, maybe - but that's their problem.

But if, during your stationary, non-road-trip social gatherings, they are respectfully going outside to smoke, and your boyfriend is even eschewing tobacco and staying inside to keep you company, I don't see what you can, or should, say or do about it.

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What's the point? You will certainly get a smoky face full of pushback from them. And the net effect on their smoking routine, I can confidently predict, will be nil. I don't know if you've heard, but smoking is an addiction. And coming between an addict and his/her preferred substance is a dicey proposition at the best of times.

Since the only impact it has on you is you have to twiddle your thumbs inside or outside for a few minutes while they indulge, I'd leave it alone. You'll just create bad blood.

I'll say this, though: If your boyfriend is a keeper, you could start applying gentle pressure on him to quit. Don't nag: Getting a loved one to kick a habit is analogous to landing a big-game fish. You have to reel him in a little, then let out a little line. It could take years.

If he doesn't quit, it's not the end of the world. Smokers and non-smokers can peacefully cohabit, as long as they are respectful of the sanctity of one another's airspace. I see it all around me, all the time.

But if he does quit, it'll be good for him, and he'll be grateful and give you credit. And that'll be great for your relationship. And maybe if he quits, he'll inspire someone else in the group to do the same, and pretty soon non-smoking will hit a Malcolm Gladwellian tipping point in your group and no one will smoke any more.

Wouldn't that be nice? And then you'll all breathe easier, both literally and figuratively. And you can go for bike rides together, and do yoga, and drink fruit shakes with little shots of wheat grass and, uh, flax in them - and whatever the hell else healthy people do.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released in March.

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