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Why we wrote it: The 'Smokin' athletes!' story

August 7, 2008 |  5:00 pm

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The reasons for the package -- an introduction, a scientific look at the health effects and five profiles of athletes who light up from time to time -- seemed obvious to us. They were apparently less so to some readers.

Said Jo, on the story discussion board: "This is a completely irresponsible article." Said Marc: "What an idiotic article. Was that blurb sponsored by Philip Morris?"

Perhaps some elaboration is in order...

Smoking has become so synonymous with an unhealthful lifestyle, its biological ill effects so well-known and its practice so publicly restricted that its practitioners are essentially demonized, dismissed as would-be paramours of death obviously destined for a bad end. Marathoners and other athletes, meanwhile, are held up as above-reproach paragons of healthful virtue, inspirations to a couch-potato-dominated society succumbing en masse to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

L.A. Times readers no longer need to simply be told that smoking is bad and exercise is good. They know that -- and they're sophisticated enough in their understanding of health issues to grasp that one message does not drown out all others. Good health is not a black or white issue for most people -- it's a palette.

The Times Health staff members are not personal coaches. We're not cheerleaders. We're not professional nags. (Well, that last one...) You want to smoke? That's your business. You want to sit on the couch? Again, that's your business. Our job is to tell you the consequences of each. And we have. Again and again. This time, we decided to put a finer point on the issues.

The blending of a widely praised habit with a widely reviled one happens more often than many might realize and, as news gatherers, we reported as much. That's what we do. We write about things that happen -- not simply that we wish would happen (which is a good thing, because my list of wishes is long indeed). Beyond describing something that is occurring, this package raises legitimate medical questions: Is it better to be a smoker with otherwise good habits -- or a nonsmoker who thinks searching for the remote is a workout? And why is that? What are the key biological factors? This is information that we can all use, smoker or not, exerciser or not.

Maybe that fine line each of us walks, in one way or another, between good health and bad health is interesting to you. Maybe it's not. Obviously Chris is of the latter mind-set: "I also don't know why LA Times thinks this is so shocking -- I guess someone just had to think of something to fill up the empty pages." 

But as the discussion board shows, the article did provoke much of the reaction we had hoped -- thoughtful analysis, personal reflection, a greater discussion of individual choice and the compensations people try to make as they gain more knowledge.

Says steveC: "I smoked cigarettes for over 25 years while being a dedicated surfer, and later, as a windsurfer. Fortunately, it became clear to me that there's really no future in smoking cigarettes. Let's be honest, as you age and continue smoking, the result is not on the positive side of opportunity."

And from Accept life: "This is not an article promoting tobacco. It is just to inform people that 4-6% of people smoke AND exercise. People have an inalienable right to smoke even if it causes them health problems. No they do not have a right to subject others to second hand smoke. All the anti smokers making a big deal about this article need to accept the fact that people will always smoke ..."

Thanks for getting it, Accept life. Perhaps we'll put on hold that petition to tar and feather all smokers and to set up automatic subscription-canceling services for articles that do not preface the word "smoker" with "vile" or other adjectives questioning their morality, sanity or love of country.

And to answer Marc's question: No, the article wasn't sponsored by Philip Morris. When we included the quote "If people can quit, that's the best thing" in Exercise cuts some of smoking's risks -- but it's a fact that performance is affected, we decided, eh, why bother?

As for the "Smokin' athletes!" head, it seems unlikely that those two simple words would persuade teenagers to take up the smoking habit, as one perhaps-now-former reader contended. If our display type is that powerful, I can only hope that the smokers among those teenagers will take up marathons.

And besides, I still think that headline was clever.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Jon Delaney, 29: "Smoking is like my last vice." Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

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