Time to North Dakota to clear the air...

If you're into marketing, public relations or advertising, you know there's one way to sell something, make something look good or get a point across that's far more effective than any other: Use kids as your messengers. Even borderline exploit them if you have to, because no one can act cuter and no one can tug at your heart-strings and make your chin quiver like a heartfelt, innocent little kid.

    Which brings us to the radio. Currently on at least one radio station that's force-fed into my ears from time to time through no willful act of my own, a public service announcement is getting heavy airplay, and it's for some coalition or association (BreatheND possibly?) that doesn't think North Dakota workers need to be subjected to second-hand cigarette smoke when they're simply trying to earn a paycheck keep the heat on and feed their family.

    The star of the PSA, as you've probably guessed by now, is a child, a little girl. She talks about how her mom is going to have to go to work that night at a North Dakota bar, where smokers are still allowed to roam free, pollute the air and turn charred black the lungs of anyone that comes within a pool table's length of them. This includes the little girl's mom, and as she gets deeper into the radio commercial and talks in more depth about her mom's unfortunate plight, she starts to sound even more earnest and dramatic as she stretches out some particular words for added effect.

    "It's making my mom feel si-iiiiiiick," she says. Then, after a pause and a few more statistics uttered by a professional radio voice that's not nearly as touching as the little girl who thinks she's going to soon be raised by her widower dad, the little girl joins back in, saying, simply, of second-hand smoke: "It's killing her."

    I'm not going to lie to you. The way the girl says "si-iiiiick," it's almost put a grin on my face a couple times when I’ve heard the radio spot. I only hear it on 96.1 FM, because that's the only music-playing station that comes in consistently in the Times' newsroom, even if Lynyrd Skynyrd songs make me want to throw myself through the nearest window. So sometimes, the girl's pleas for a law in North Dakota to ban smoking in public places and, in the process, add precious years to her mom's life, amount to comic relief for me during a hectic morning at work.

    But, here's the deal: The commercial, even if it's a bit melodramatic, is absolutely right on the mark. Second-hand smoke kills. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in 10 years, but it shortens lives. They used to say that every cigarette a person smoked reduced his/her life by eight minutes. However true that was or wasn't, people who work in bars and other places where smokers have free rein have a better chance of dying prematurely than those who aren't exposed to such disgusting toxins.

    Non-smokers are spoiled in Minnesota, and here in Crookston, specifically. Ordinances and laws were passed in proactive fashion, and it's been a while since any of us have had to breathe anyone's spewed-smoke death cloud in any public building.

    But in North Dakota? It's like the dark ages over there. We're so accustomed in Minnesota to not having dry contact lenses that feel like sandpaper on our eyeballs, headaches, and clothes that smell like ashtrays, that we forget our friendly little oil slick of a neighbor to the west doesn’t prohibit smoking in all public buildings.

    Our crew of hockey parents had a pee-wee game to bring the boys to in a central North?Dakota city last winter. We killed some time before the puck dropped at a local watering hole, and as soon as we walked in the door, it was like turning back the clock 30 years. The air was a bluish-gray haze. The bar and nearby tables each were equipped with an ash tray, and an army of 25 year old women who looked like they were 45 were puff, puff, puffing away. The men they were with looked like the Marlboro Man, if the Marlboro Man was a walking corpse.

    For some reason, we decided to tough it out. As we sat at the bar and told witty stories, every once in a while a violent "SHUSH!" came from behind me. Sure enough, it was bingo night, and our giggly bar-banter was apparently drowning out the leather-faced 114-year-old lady - Or was she only 83? - calling out the bingo numbers with one hand, and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights with her other. I looked over my shoulder to get a glimpse of the person who kept shushing us, thinking that, by the sound of the voice, the source of the consternation was some middle-aged trucker guy, maybe on his way to or from the oil patch. But, no, it was a young woman, maybe 30, who looked like she'd been on a two-pack-a-day bender since the day the space shuttle Challenger blew up. (I won't make you do the math: I'm saying she lit up her first smoke when she was 5.)

    To the powers that be in North Dakota, please pass a law that addresses second-hand smoke. Your people are dying. And visitors to your state are having frightening experiences that haunt them for a lifetime. And, no, I'm not talking about visiting your black gold country.