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A Letter to Coachella Music Festival Promoters: Create Smoking Sections

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I attended Coachella last weekend. It was an unforgettable experience to see many of my favorite acts in one place. The sounds, the searing desert heat, the spectacular light shows, the weirdness of it all and the interesting people are all things I hope to remember when I'm on my deathbed mentally ticking through my bucket list checking if I experienced everything I hoped to experience in my lifetime.

I'd like to return to the three-day music festival next year, and perhaps the following year, but one thing might prevent me from doing that -- the inescapable and obnoxious cigarette smoke. It was everywhere and there was no safe haven for my friends and me.

I am lying on my bed writing this three days after the festival ended because I'm still sick from breathing in the toxic fumes. Yes, I'm very sensitive to it. Thank my parents who lit up every single day of my life until I finally left home at 18.

By day two of the festival I was channeling Demi Moore with my throaty voice, but I sure didn't feel sexy. My throat is raw, my voice is practically gone, I'm sneezing, my nose is stuffy, I have a headache but thankfully, the fever has gone down.

I'm not particularly uptight about most things and I understand that Coachella is an open-air festival in the middle of nowhere but that doesn't mean anything when people are sucking on cancer sticks everywhere. It felt no different than being in an intimate, smoky bar. In fact, many researchers say that it's actually no different -- the harm is still the same whether you are inside or outdoors.

My plea is to make Coachella create smoking sections starting in 2015. This way everyone can enjoy the festival -- smokers and yes, even the non-smokers. Creating some restrictions on smoking isn't so cutting-edge anymore. After all, some music festivals, like Outside Lands in San Francisco and Ravinia outside of Chicago, ban smoking entirely. But hey, this would be a good start.

I know, I know. Even though we like to play like we're all a bunch of hippies here in Southern California, we're not. Sheesh, even Illinois is more progressive than we are.

Liz Williams, a project manager for Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, says it's becoming more and more common for outdoor venues to adopt restrictions on smoking.

"Everyone should be able to enjoy the music venue without putting their health at risk from breathing other people's secondhand smoke," Williams said.

To me this is a "duh" issue. When non-smokers are exposed to secondhand smoke, also known as environmental tobacco smoke, it's called involuntary smoking or passive smoking. Non-smokers who breathe this in take in nicotine and toxic chemicals just like "real" smokers do.

Numerous studies link secondhand smoke to lung cancer and there's some evidence suggesting it might be linked to lymphoma, leukemia, and brain tumors in children, and a gazillion other cancers.

In the United States, the costs of extra medical care, illness, and death caused by secondhand smoke are over $10 billion per year.

Since 1964, 34 separate U.S. Surgeon General's reports have been telling people to get a grip and quit smoking. Secondhand smoke kills children and adults who don't smoke. The Surgeon General estimates that living with a smoker increases the chance of getting lung cancer by 20 percent to 30 percent.

Stanford University researchers in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association concluded that a non-smoker being within a few feet of a smoker outdoors may expose them to air pollution levels that are comparable, on average, to indoor levels measured in previous studies of homes and taverns.

"Some folks have expressed the opinion that exposure to outdoor tobacco smoke is insignificant, because it dissipates quickly into the air," said Neil Klepeis, lead author of the study in a press release. "But our findings show that a person sitting or standing next to a smoker outdoors can breathe in wisps of smoke that are many times more concentrated than normal background air pollution levels."

Smokers, however, can be a surly bunch and tough to convince.

On day three of the festival, as Arcade Fire was about to come on, an inebriated woman stepped in front of my friend Marta with a lit cigarette in her hand. Marta politely asked the smoker to move a couple of feet over so the smoke wouldn't be wafting directly in her face.

The smoker's response? To flick her cigarette at Marta with a "fuck you." I'm thanking my lucky stars I was not around for that little interaction because I'm not entirely sure what my response would've been. My inkling is that I would not have been as nice as Marta was. One of Marta's friends, who herself had an asthma attack the night before brought on by exposure to cigarette smoke, was able to diffuse the situation and the woman eventually moved away.

The point is that smokers like to proclaim their rights, minimize the discomfort they cause others and tell non-smokers to stay home if they don't like it but I feel like I shouldn't have to stay home simply because I like to breathe clean air.

I get it -- it's their God-given right to pollute the air, their lungs and others' lungs. If they die from lung cancer, so be it. If I die from lung cancer, well then, I'm just an unlucky bastard.

Some smokers like to compare this as an infringement on their individual rights and complain about government overreach but I cry foul. They complain that they are running out of places to smoke. I won't even pretend to sympathize. What about my rights to breathing healthy, clean air? Don't I, as a non-smoker, have the right to breathe non-polluted air while bouncing up and down to Martin Garrix in the Sahara tent?

You see, I already limit myself from smoke-filled situations. On the weekends, you're more likely to see me on a trail than in a bar. If I detect a smoker on the street, I quickly scurry past them. Outdoor patio seating at restaurants -- why not just call them what they are -- reserved areas for smokers?

Hell, I can't even catch a break at home, no thanks to my new neighbors and their (poor) newborn baby. Their idea of getting some peace from the wailing youngster is to smoke outside their apartment, which, unfortunately, also happens to be outside my living room window, which I now keep closed even on hot days to ward off the cigarette-infused ocean breeze.

Yeah, I know. I just need to suck it up, right?

At an all-day indoor rock concert a few years ago, I thought I was going to pass out from all the smoke around me. I ended up missing work for a few days because I got so sick. Smokers may tell me to quit my whining and stay home but nah, that's not my style anymore. Why should non-smokers have to needlessly suffer from breathing in this crap?

My parents smoked incessantly when I was growing up. I recall sitting captive in our car while they puffed away. I'd open up the window and stick my head out. At the dinner table, at home and restaurants, I'll never forget the taste of food mixed in with nicotine. Gross. I couldn't breathe. I would beg them to quit.

The anti-smoking campaigns were already in full effect in the 80s when I was a kid. I'd tell them in, yes, quite dramatic terms, that not only were they killing themselves but they were taking me and my sister along for the ride. They'd brush me off. When I hid their Marlboro's they would yell at me. Nothing worked until I left home and joined the military and surrounded myself with a different set of smokers. There was no escape.

In 1996, my father had quadruple bypass surgery. He quit smoking and encouraged my mom to follow suit. She didn't and smoked for the next 15 years before finally quitting in 2009. By then it was too late.

On September 18, 2012, my mom died from lung cancer, just two months after she was diagnosed.

Let's just say that witnessing someone you adore dying from lung cancer is not a walk in the park. She was in excruciating pain. It was tough for her to breathe. By the time doctors discovered what was wrong with her it was too late for surgery. It was just too late to do anything.

As much as I felt compassion for my mother, I also felt a measure of anger and then I felt guilty for feeling angry. Why didn't she quit earlier? Why did she expose me to her vice? Why did she have to die prematurely on her grandkids and me?

I joked to my boyfriend over the weekend that if I got lung cancer myself I would be pretty pissed off. Actually, in retrospect, it's not very funny, but hey, gallows humor, right?

But back to the topic at hand -- what do you say, Coachella? Will you consider creating smoking sections for next year's festival? Oh yeah, and look for a formal request from me. I'll also be sending one to the city of Indio as well.

Sincerely,
A Coachella Music Festival fan who would love to attend future events