Nailing Coffin Nails


Joe Cherner may soon be looking for a job. It’s not because he needs the money; the 41-year-old did so well on Wall Street in the 1980s that he never has to work again. It’s just that Cherner, the city’s foremost unpaid antitobacco activist, thinks he will soon finish the work he set out to do. As policy chair of the Coalition for a Smoke Free City and president of his own nonprofit organization, SmokeFree Educational Services, Cherner has already spearheaded successful citywide campaigns to stop the free distribution of cigarettes, get rid of vending machines, ban tobacco use on school property, and eliminate all city-owned tobacco billboards. The victory he treasures most in more than 10 years of fighting tobacco full-time came in 1995, when the City Council voted to outlaw smoking in restaurants with more than 35 seats.

For his parting gift, the crusader would like the city to finish the job by banning smoking in restaurants with 35 seats or less, nightclubs, and bars.

“Then I’ll be satisfied,” said Cherner, an avid tennis player who has never smoked a cigarette in his life. “I think it’s reasonable thatnobody should have to breathe smoke to havea job. Once the law satisfies that requirement,I think it’s time to move on to something else.”

Whatever that something else is, one gets the sense Cherner will pursue it with an urgency that verges on obsession. The man whom public advocate Mark Green describes as “one of the most tenacious and single-minded advocates I’ve ever met” was similarly intense about his job as a bond trader.

Almost a decade after he left Wall Street, Cherner’s reasons for shifting his laserlike focus from trading to tobacco are somewhat mysterious. No one in his immediate family ever smoked, nor did they feel particularly strongly about the smoking issue. Before he was a full-time advocate, his only direct connection to smoking was through his family’s longtime housekeeper, who died of lung cancer.

Cherner had always been annoyed by otherpeople’ssmoke,however,evenas achild. In his smoke-filled Wall Street workplace, he circulated a petition among his coworkers that ultimately convinced his employer, Kidder Peabody, to create the first smoke-free trading floor. While he was still a trader, he met with Mayor Koch to air his antitobacco views.

Not everyone was pleased with Cherner’s organizing efforts. He remembers a partner in the firm blowing smoke in his face after he spoke publicly against tobacco. But he was undaunted–perhaps even energized–by the opposition. By 1990, four years after his trading-floor victory, he reached the point that he had long dreamed about: having enough money to dedicate himself to “doing something good.”

And so it was that the Wall Street wonder wound up working for no pay in his sprawling apartment in the financial district. A recent workday was typical. A barefoot Cherner worked the phones, calling scientists to ask for their most recent studies on secondhand smoke and chatting with colleagues at the American Cancer Society. He also held forth on what really bugs him, which, it turns out, isn’t smokers.

“If people want to smoke 10 packs a day, I could care less,” he says, shrugging. “They have every right to hurt themselves.” What Cherner can’t stand is when people around smokers end up breathing their smoke. “It would be nice if the product was only inhaled and not exhaled, but it’s not. The product has a lit end where the smoke that causes cancer comes out.”

So Cherner focuses his substantial rage on makers of “the product,” whom he refers to as the “tobacco cartel.” As in: “Governor Pataki is a puppet of the tobacco cartel.” Cherner makes this comment by way of explaining why much of the money New York State received from the settlement between states and big tobacco companies may in factbe used to pay for sidewalk repair, tax reduction, and other non-tobacco-related expenses.

If Cherner had his way, the city, which isdue approximately $250 million as its share of

the settlement, would spend the entire amount on ads that skewer cigarettes. As he sees it, there’s no better way to get back at the cartel than to use its own money to attack the source of its profit. The coalition has already run a few such counterads, including the “Virginia Slime” and “Come to Where the Cancer Is” parodies that ran in bus shelters and subway cars in the early 1990s. If Cherner is successful, a new batch of counterads will soon be hammering away about the dangers of secondhand smoke in restaurants and bars.

He figures that campaign, along with his frequent meetings with various city officials, will help get a total workplace ban passed within the first half of next year.

With triumph just over the smoke-free horizon, what might Cherner’s next job be? “I would work for Merrill Lynch,” he says, noting that the company’s offices are just across the street from his apartment. Perhaps to hedge his bets, Cherner also plans to run for City Council in 2001. “City Hall,” Cherner points out, “is also right down the street.”

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