Meet the activist leading the lonely 'smokers' rights' movement
Audrey Silk, the founder of CLASH, is fighting for her right to smoke... anywhere she wants.
Audrey Silk, the founder of CLASH, is fighting for her right to smoke... anywhere she wants.
Plenty of people like to smoke. At last count, about 42.1 million Americans were still getting their daily nicotine intake from old-fashioned paper-wrapped tobacco. But how many of those people, at the end of the day, are truly committed to the cause? My unscientific estimate suggests about 1,300. That, at least, is the number of people currently enlisted in the NYC CLASH Facebook group—CLASH being the combative acronym for New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment. From challenging bans on smoking in public parks to protesting raising the cigarette sales age to 21, the organization has made its case known at every smoking-related hearing of the last decade, speaking up for those too scared or throat-sore to speak for themselves.
They don't meet in person. An in-person meet-up would, anyway, be tough to organize, given that many of the group's members appear not to based in New York City, or indeed even in the United States. They come to the CLASH page to vent, theorize, and (in the case of one frequent poster) hawk discount cigars. There are Thomas Paine memes, talk of personal liberty, vape jokes. Virtually all discourse is conducted in that tone—indignant, conspiracy-minded, heavy on words like 'tyranny'—that clever young leftists love to parody on Twitter. And presiding over the whole howling rabble, linking to the latest outrage and going long in the comments, is one Audrey Silk, a retired cop and CLASH founder.
Left Audrey Silk photographed at her home in Marine Park, Brooklyn, NY, on November 13, 2015. Right The last of the season's tobacco plants in Silk's backyard at her home in Brooklyn. Silk is an avid gardener; she took up the hobby after retiring from the police force.
Silk lives in the Marine Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a slim standalone home bordered by the flowers she tends to when she wakes up in the afternoon (she's a committed night owl). She's tan, with Fawcett-ish, feathered brown hair and vice-defyingly white teeth (unbleached; I asked). For over a decade, she's commanded CLASH's offensives from her home, which she shares with a tiny dog and her long-distance boyfriend's African Grey parrot, who has picked up her distinctive laugh.
Until her 30s, Silk was not particularly political. "I didn't know the difference between a Democrat and a Republican," she told me. Her political consciousness awoke in the late '90s, with the dawning awareness that smoking—long linked to lung cancer but still a common-enough pedestrian pastime—was coming under attack. When she learned that the New York City council was holding a hearing on smoking bans she went to speak her mind. "They didn't give two shits what Jane Public thinks," she told me. And so Jane Public, after ordering a letterhead, became, against her herd-loathing instincts, CLASH.
Soon sympathetic smokers were signing up by the hundreds for her newsletter, and by the early '00s, when the indoor smoking bans were ramping up in New York, she'd become something of a smoker-celebrity—a brash, Brooklyn-accented advocate for the right to light up. She cycled through the talk shows, where she sparred with scientists and city employees, and was quoted, often dismissively, in dozens of articles. Even the fake news got in on the action: Stephen Colbert, then a Daily Show correspondent, taped a segment in her living room (Audrey didn't know the show was satirical until it aired.)
When I met her at her home a few weeks ago, she was still riled up from a fight she'd had online that day, about The Walking Dead. A character had apparently been chastised by her housemate for smoking indoors. And so she took her smoking to the stoop, where she was promptly macheted to death. "It's not the Wolf that killed her,” Silk said, referring to a subset of homicidal zombie. “It's the anti-smoking mindset that killed her.”
Recycled Parlament packs containing Silk's homegrown tobacco blend named, "Screw You Bloomberg." Silk says she hasn't bought an actual pack of cigarettes since Bloomberg hiked the prices six years ago.
One of the reasons I was looking forward to this interview was the almost-certain knowledge that I would be able to smoke while conducting it. (That's one of the problems with being a smoker: Any indoor activity lasting longer than an hour—say, work, or moviegoing—is hell.) And sure enough, Silk's cigs emerged moments into our conversation. I noticed her pack of Parliaments looked weathered, trashcan-salvaged, and asked what was up with that. "This is housing my homegrown," she said.
Silks’ homegrown is called, "Screw You Bloomberg." If that sounds familiar, then you've probably seen the moodily-soundtracked Dutch documentary on the subject. If you haven't, I'll fill you in. About a half a decade ago, a wave of anti-smoking legislation in New York culminated in a tax hike that turned New York City’s cigarettes into the nation’s priciest. Decades ago Silk had said she’d quit when prices hit a dollar; they were now approaching fourteen. And so she decided to start growing her own. (Bloomberg is to CLASH what Obama is to the Tea Party, the difference being that CLASH, in its decade-plus history, has failed to obstruct a single piece of anti-smoking legislation.)
I'd like to stress that Audrey is, so far as I can tell, a mostly reasonable and remarkably kind woman. She readily admits that primary smoking is dangerous and—unlike the tobacco companies, from whom she has received no funding—she has no interest in getting anyone to start smoking. And though her views skew conservative, she has a real social conscience: Discussing a just-proposed measure to ban smoking in federal housing projects, she pointed out that cops would inevitably use that law to baselessly harass people of color.
Silk shares her home with her tiny dog, Dinky, and her long-distance boyfriend's African Grey parrot, Albert, who has picked up her distinctive laugh. Silk is convinced that the parrot dislikes the dog.
Now that that's been stressed, I should probably get into what exactly CLASH believes in. According to Silk, "they invented secondhand smoke in the '70s." Who are they? They are a loose coalition of stat-skewing activist scientists and vote-currying legislators committed to marginalizing and (eventually) eliminating New York City’s cigarette smokers. You see, smoke was once just a feature of the landscape, like fog, or humidity. The anti-smokers politicized it. They cranked out papers garnished with lies and half-truths, and they used these papers—whose message, essentially, was that secondhand smoke kills, too—to boot smokers from bars and parks.
Silk's shield, when defending her views on secondhand smoke, is a paper published twelve years ago in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, which claimed to have found no significant relationship between ETS (Environmental Tobacco Smoke) and tobacco-related mortality. Its findings were so widely and brutally ridiculed by the scientific community that James Enstrom, its co-author, was compelled to write a 15,000-word rebuttal invoking McCarthy and the truth-suppressing Russian agronomist Trofim Lysenko. In it, he disputes the notion that his work was funded by Big Tobacco—apparently, only a small portion of it was—and goes on to systematically fight off the legions of attackers set on thrashing his reputation. (You get the sense, reading it, that it was first composed in Enstrom's head over a series of sleepless nights.) Silk and her supporters share Enstrom's theory and his indignation; nothing binds people together more reliably than a sense of persecution.
This is the core tenet of the CLASH platform, which might explain CLASH's resounding lack of success as an organization. To use terms like "junk science," as Audrey does, and to link your institution's web page to self-published alternate histories bearing titles like "TobaccoNacht," is to consign your cause to the paranoid fringes where the anti-vaxxers and the Truthers roam. Hitler himself was referenced twice in our conversation—in relation to twentysomething-targeted anti-smoking campaigns (“Hitler didn't smoke—you gonna right-swipe him, because he didn't have a cigarette in his mouth?") and to the anti-smoking set’s argument that cigarette addiction leads to reduced productivity (“It's got a really bad Hitler feel,” Silk says.)
Smoking paraphernalia at Silk's home in Brooklyn, most of which she buys on eBay.
If this was a different kind of article, I might scavenge a damning quote or two. "That's insane—of course secondhand smoke kills," says Bearded Factman, professor of etcetera at etc etc. But my purpose here isn't to disprove Audrey; I couldn't change her mind if I tried. (This is 2015; if you want to believe something, Google will always have your back). It would be one thing if CLASH were funded by industry, and printing pamphlets by the millions—if, as with, say, the pro-gun groups, their views were causing harm to anyone but themselves. The war is over, the smoke has cleared. The odds that CLASH or any other group will roll back Bloomberg’s policies are close to non-existent.
And so CLASH's activities become purely symbolic. In this context, I'm thankful for Audrey. She might be the first truly shameless smoker I have ever met. Hanging with her, it's like the Surgeon General's report just never happened. She is an old-school smoker, with none of the millennial addict's self-loathing. She wasn't raised on Truth ads—all those ravaged spokespersons, with their throat holes and regret. I have never thought to be proud of the fact that I smoke. And I'm still not, really. But Silk's semi-paranoid theorizing aside, I'm happy she's out there, advocating for the old way of life. One day New York will be only exercise equipment and fast-casual hamburgers and, if we're lucky, an underground smoke-bunker for the few people wealthy enough to buy $900 cigarettes; in that dystopia, the Silks of this world will be missed.
Left Silk's fridge at her home in Brooklyn. Silk was a member of the NYPD on 9/11; she retired in 2004. Right Silk's family photographs. Every room of her house has at least one ashtray.
The National Cancer Institute: 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848)
NY QUITS: 1-866-697-8487