Audio Postcard From A Reluctant Foot Soldier In The War On Tobacco

Jun 17, 2016

The Holiday Lodge in Lander, Wyoming.
Credit Nathan Martin

 


There are only four places to buy cigarettes in all of Hot Springs County if you don’t count liquor stores or bars. I know because it was my job to know. I was a Synar driver.

Synar drivers scour the state looking for stores that sell tobacco. We don’t use Google or Yelp. We drive the roads. We pound the pavement. We ask questions. It’s good old-fashioned detective work. Except we’re not looking for clues—we’re looking for smokes. 

Credit Nathan Martin

Mike Synar, our project’s namesake, was an Oklahoma Congressman who opposed smoking. In 1992, Congress passed an amendment named for Synar that aimed to prevent underage smoking. In order to receive federal funds for substance abuse programs, states must take measures to stop kids from getting their hands on tobacco products. It’s the Synar driver’s job to document where kids might try to get them.

That’s how I ended up on a sunny afternoon in May standing on a dirt road, trying to gauge whether our rental sedan would make it through a mud hole up ahead. My colleague and I had taken our boss’ instructions literally: “Search every road on the map for tobacco retailers.” 

Fremont County
Credit Nathan Martin

Apparently, our map was more detailed than it needed to be. It led us to a remote corner of Fremont County where the pavement turned to dirt among scattered ranches and sagebrush. Not a smoke shop in sight. Backtracking seemed like a waste of time, though, so we went forth. Every couple miles we had to stop to scout a mud hole. Antelope looked on in what I took as vague amusement.

I applied for the Synar job because it gave me a weird excuse to explore the state. I’d never been to Kirby, for instance, where the Wyoming Whiskey distillery is located (but no cigarette stores). I’d never been to Hartville, either, home of Wyoming’s oldest bar (but again, no tobacco shops). 

Thermopolis Day's Inn, which displays hundreds of exotic animal mounts.
Credit Nathan Martin

I rarely stay in hotels, so it was a treat to check into the Holiday Lodge in Lander, which boasts what must be the state’s most incredible neon sign; or into the Thermopolis Day’s Inn, which displays hundreds of exotic animal mounts in its Safari Club. There, I shot pool with a Houston oilman, to whom I explained my job. He replied: Well, during lean times, that seems like a program we could probably cut.

I felt uncomfortable working for the tobacco police. The last thing I want is for some poor store clerk to lose her job because of a Synar sting operation that I, even in a small way, helped facilitate. Maybe the war against tobacco is righteous, since smoking costs so much in terms of suffering and health care spending. But it also seems aligned with efforts to transform the world into one where pleasure and autonomy are expendable aspects of life; and where everyone is uptight about safety and fitness.

Still, I was sad when the job was done. The last morning, we drove south out of Douglas past empty coal trains. I pulled a baggie of morel mushrooms from my jacket. A stranger had picked them from a nearby creek and given us some the night before while we were all having drinks at the White Wolf Saloon. Douglas does not have an indoor smoking ban, but my jacket smelled fresh. I put its fabric up to my nose and inhaled. I recalled—perhaps with a tiny bit of appreciation—that the White Wolf Saloon is smoke-free. The ghost of Mike Synar smiled.