RALEIGH, NC—The ever-embattled tobacco industry suffered another blow Monday, as citizens' groups challenged the major smokeless-tobacco companies to confront the quality-of-life issues associated with secondhand spit.
"This isn't the '50s, when you would see TV commercials with lab-coat-wearing doctors spitting chewing tobacco right on the examination-room floor," said activist Helen Pertwee of The Great American Tobacco Backwash, a citizens' group dedicated to fighting the rising tide of secondhand tobacco spit in public places. "In this day and age, we are much more informed about the consequences of secondhand spit, and non-chewers are refusing to expose ourselves to it."
New York resident Glen Abramson objects to the use of chewing tobacco in public places.
"I can't go to a bar without coming home reeking of tobacco spit," Abramson said. "I have to wring my clothes out in the sink before I go to bed. Sometimes, I'll get them back from the dry-cleaners with flakes of chew still clinging in the weave."
Boston's Janice MacGruder frequently eats out at a restaurant that allows smokeless tobacco.
"The spit affects the taste of the food," MacGruder said. "The hazy, brown mist hanging in the air doesn't stay in the chewing section—common sense can tell you that. Despite the image the old phrase conjures up, it's not romantic to eat a meal in a 'spit-filled room.'"
The pools of tobacco spit on floors and tables are particularly noisome to people in the service industry, who are exposed to three times more secondhand spit than the average American—up to 450 gallons a year.
"The way people view secondhand spit needs to change," said Lindsey Hurness, a bartender in Tampa, FL. "People spit their gobs of old chew everywhere—in drink glasses, in plants, in the sink. And the floors are slick with pools of spit. Sometimes, on busy weekend nights, the goopy brown stuff comes up to my shoelaces."
Secondhand-spit exposure is not a problem experienced only by bar and restaurant patrons.
"Ask any frequent traveler: It's hell to be on a plane if the other passengers are chewing tobacco," said business consultant Jessica Mallard, who is on the road 250 days a year. "Even when I get a window seat, I walk off the plane with half of my blazer absolutely drenched in the stuff."
"Then there's the hotel," Mallard added. "Even if you stay in a no-chewing room, you get a spit-sodden pillow half the time. And if they don't have any no-chewing rooms left, you might as well go sleep in the rodeo bleachers."
According to hotel managers, spit-related costs are rising.
"There was a time, 10 or 15 years ago, when hotels could get along with one wet-vac," said Red Roof Inn vice president Ronald Henneman, who oversees housekeeping for the national chain. "No more. We extracted enough tobacco-saliva slurry from our carpets last year to float the Queen Mary."
Although the smokeless-tobacco industry says there is no hard evidence of any health risk associated with exposure to secondhand spit, their claim is questioned by an increasingly moist and nauseated public.
"I don't give a shit what Skoal says, secondhand spit is a serious threat," Pertwee said. "At the very least, the industry needs to measure secondhand spit's effects on kids, who are closer to the ground, where all that spit ends up."
As long as tobacco chewers continue to exert their influence in Congress, people like Pertwee will be swimming upstream.
"I don't know why everyone's got their panties in a twist about this," said Ron Preston, ejecting a stream of brown saliva into a nearby plant. "It's my body—unless those PC Nazis get their way. If people don't like getting spit on, they can move over. It's that simple."