Rhoda Nichter could never stomach the smell of secondhand cigarette smoke. After putting up with a smoke-filled workplace while employed as a collections assistant in the early 1970s, Nichter, then a young mother of two, decided she'd had enough.
"I always had a dry nose and throat and a respiratory infection from the smoke," recalls Nichter, now an 80-something grandmother of four. "My bosses smoked. . . . How could I tell the treasurer, 'Your smoke is bothering me'?"
She quit her job after several months and complained in a letter to a local newspaper that she had no rights when confronted by smokers in public. "I said I couldn't hold a job because the people I was working with smoked, and I got sick from their smoke," she recalls. "I said something has to be done about educating these people."
The day Nichter's letter was published, she noticed two more writers had objected to secondhand smoke. "I looked up their phone numbers and invited the others to my house," she says. That led to her starting GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution) of New York in 1974.
Claire Millman of Plainview, who also had two young children, was fed up with being "assaulted" by secondhand smoke. "In those days, wherever you went to purchase goods and services, and even in doctors' waiting rooms, people were allowed to smoke," recalls Millman, now 81 and a grandmother of four. "I felt the necessity to start working to eliminate smoking in public places." She found a friend and fellow anti-smoking activist in Nichter and joined GASP. "Rhoda and I had the same goals, and together we started the appeals for smoke-free air in both counties," she says. "We had to reverse the norm and educate people so they understood that they could live in a smoke-free environment."
Nichter and Millman were at the forefront of a widely derided movement to prohibit smoking in public buildings and restaurants on Long Island and in New York City. Working alongside nonprofit health advocacy organizations and other grassroots groups, they lobbied for the adoption of smoking restrictions considered extremely tough at the time. Their campaign pressed for nonsmokers' rights, when lighting up in public was the norm.
Marianne Zacharia, senior director of community tobacco education for the American Lung Association of the Northeast, says organizations such as hers and the American Cancer Society worked "to create laws to protect the health of nonsmokers." However, "change would never happen as quickly without your movers and shakers like Rhoda and Claire."
Eventually, Nichter and Millman branched out into different areas of the anti-smoking arena, but four decades since GASP was started, they're still at it.
Nichter, author of "How to Quit Smoking Once and for All" and "Yes, I Do Mind If You Smoke," described the early anti-smoking campaign as an uphill battle. "At first, it was difficult to get legislators to listen to us and to consider putting the bill up for a vote, because they were being pressured by the tobacco industry and restaurants not to pass the legislation," she says. To reach a wider audience, GASP published and mailed a quarterly newsletter she and her late husband, Murray, mostly funded until the group received tax-exempt nonprofit status.
Within a couple of years, she says, there was a GASP chapter in almost every state. The campaign was a lot of "hard work and required a lot of tenacity," she says, but "GASP made smoking socially unacceptable through consciousness-raising, and that was the whole point in what we did."
It was not an easy fight. "There was a big uproar that went out from the restaurants," recalls Nichter, who was fast becoming the media's anti-smoking go-to source. "They said they would lose business and that people wouldn't come and eat out if they couldn't smoke."
Rick Sampson, past president and CEO of the New York Restaurant Association based in Albany, says restaurants experienced economic hardship when the smoking ban was enacted initially. However, he says, "When we realized that secondhand smoke was harmful, we had to support the bans, but we took a lot of abuse from the industry, and the customers were holding the restaurateurs responsible for banning smoking and didn't frequent their restaurants."
Now, Sampson says, "Smokers are used to going outside to have a cigarette and then returning to their meal. It's working for the restaurants and the patrons."
The first surgeon general's warning about the health hazards of smoking was issued in 1964. But during the 1970s, when Nichter began her campaign, "people didn't understand the hazards of secondhand smoke," she says. Even doctors were unfamiliar with the concept. That was clear, she says, when she spoke to the Nassau Academy of Medicine, a doctors' group in Garden City, about dangers of passive smoke.
"There were 300 or 400 doctors there, and they had no idea secondhand smoke was harmful," she recalls. "I told them I didn't have the science to back it up but that when I was exposed to smoke, I would cough and a couple of days later I'd get a respiratory infection."
It wasn't until 1986 that then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking." Koop's report defined secondhand smoke as not just an annoyance, "but as a quantifiable health risk," according to the National Library of Medicine Profiles in Science.
After Nichter's presentation to the academy, a couple of doctors asked her if she would give a smoking-cessation seminar at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, provided they mentored her. She quickly agreed. Nearly four decades later, Nichter says, thousands have signed up for her program. During one five-year period, she says, she followed up with former students and found that about 70 percent of them were still smoke-free after a year.
The hospital doesn't track Nichter's classes, but "overwhelmingly, participants say they quit smoking by the end of her class," says Sue Palo, director of rehabilitation and community services at the hospital's DeMatteis Center for Cardiac Research and Education.
Nichter and Millman parted ways in the mid-1980s. While Nichter focused on smoking cessation, Millman formed Alliance for Smoke-free Air and concentrated on nonsmokers' rights, becoming a charter member of the Tobacco Action Coalition of Long Island, among other groups. "Smoke-free was a new concept because smoking was a part of everyday life," says Millman.
Long Island's first anti-smoking ordinances were passed in stages, she says, beginning in the mid-1980s and culminating in the tougher smoking bans in Nassau in 2002 and Suffolk in 2003. "The early laws were not comprehensive, and we had to ask them to strengthen them," says Millman. She also pushed legislators to ban smoking on town playgrounds and beaches.
Millman's enthusiasm led to her writing a song describing the plight of nonsmokers, and her remarks on the subject frequently appeared in the media. She also made her voice heard at the New York City Council and shortly before lawmakers passed New York City's Smoke-Free Air Act in 2003, she says, she and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), along with other activists, were summoned to City Hall to weigh in on the proposed legislation.
"When she started, they didn't take her seriously," recalls Millman's husband, Stanley, a retired engineering executive. "Come on, a housewife, taking on the entire tobacco industry?"
Claire Millman recently received Lifetime Achievement awards from Brooklyn College, her alma mater, and the Association of Generational Experts for Seniors, a network of professionals from family and senior-related fields.
Elected officials and others who remember what it took for Nichter and Millman to see success say the women needed "strong shoulders" to take on opponents of the smoking bans. "They blazed a trail when the trail wasn't being listened to very well," says Nassau County Legislator Judy Jacobs. "They never gave up trying to convince people of the dangers of cigarette smoking, and they deserve a lot of credit for opening everyone's eyes as to what should and could be done."
Nichter and Millman forge on as anti-smoking advocates. Nichter plans to keep teaching her smoking-cessation class at St. Francis. And, most recently, Millman lobbied Suffolk legislators to raise the minimum age requirement for cigarette purchases to 21 was passed this month.
"The fight has taken more than 40 years," says Millman. "And it's not over yet."
READY TO STOP SMOKING?
Here's a sampling of some free smoking-cessation classes on Long Island
* North Shore-LIJ Center for Tobacco Control
6-week stop-smoking classes: 225 Community Dr., Great Neck; call 516-466-1980
* Suffolk County Department of Health's Learn to be Tobacco Free Program
For Suffolk residents, go online to bit.ly/1eG4ynu
* St. Francis Hospital's DeMatteis Center for Cardiac Research & Education
7-session stop-smoking clinic: 101 Northern Blvd., Old Brookville; call Rhoda Nichter at 516-938-0080 or St. Francis Hospital's DeMatteis Center at 516-629-2038