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Our hostess lit up at the dinner table. Was I wrong to leave the room?

The question

A little while ago, my wife and I were invited to a dinner party. It was a lovely meal, and all of us were engaging in pleasant after-dinner repartee when the hostess, who was sitting beside me, lit up a cigarette. I quit smoking 30 years ago. I don't like inhaling those fumes. When I pass someone smoking on the street, I hold my breath until I'm out of range. I knew our host and hostess were smokers, but thought they only did it in one room, to protect their adult daughter, who still lives with them. It did not occur to me that anyone in this day and age would think it cool to light up in a roomful of non-smokers. I got up and went to another room. Eventually, my hostess asked whether I suffered from some ailment that was aggravated by cigarette smoke. I just said I wasn't used to it. My wife says since we were guests at the smoker's house, I should have bitten the bullet. What do you think?

The answer

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Begging your wife's pardon (I try to agree with people's wives whenever possible), I disagree.

I hope my youngest son doesn't read this; he thinks I quit smoking years ago.

Ever since he was little, he's been like a combination of the Spanish Inquisition, Inspector Clouseau, and Lear on the heath on the topic of his father's weakness for this particular vice.

If we had guests over, and some of us went out on the porch, he'd bide his time, maybe lurking in the hallway, choose his moment – then come flying out, eyes darting around: "Ahhh-HA!"

If he caught me, he'd burst into tears, enter into a heart-rending soliloquy, sometimes falling to his knees and appealing to the heavens: "Why, why, why? I've got a dad who's gonna die!"

And what can I say? The kid had a point. So I quit – mostly. But if people come over, we have a couple of cocktails, someone lights one up – and all bets are off as Dad hits the porch and turns into a Chimney of Doom, smoking like a haystack someone tossed a flaming torch onto.

(All that's changed, really: My evasive skills have evolved – e.g. appointing a "designated smoker" to pretend my butt belongs to him or her in case of sudden offspring-incursion. But the jig's up with my mother, who I know reads this column. Sorry, Mom, the spirit was willing but the will was weak. I owe you $1,000.)

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Anyway – you know what the operative word of all the above is, vis-à-vis your query? "Porch."

Even I, who doesn't mind the odd puff, say thank God people don't smoke indoors any more. Remember? In offices, restaurants, movie theatres – and airplanes, which I gag to think of now.

I'm even glad you can't smoke in bars now. And if you asked 1990 Dave if he ever thought he'd say something like that some day, he'd emit a wheezing, rasping laugh, and say, "No way: A drink without a smoke is like a day without sunshine."

It's a clear evolution in the human condition. Smoking indoors now seems as antiquated and outdated a practice as settling disputes with duels.

Of course, tons of people still do it, in their houses, condos and cars. But I think you have the right wherever you go not to breathe in someone else's second-hand smoke.

(Though I feel you're being a tad precious holding your breath passing someone smoking in the street.)

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It follows you have the right politely to inform a person, even in their own home, of your discomfort.

Just say: "Excuse me, I'm sorry, but the smoke from your cigarette is bothering me."

At which point let's hope she does the right thing. I mean, what kind of hostess pursues you into the next room, finds out you went there not knowing what else to do to avoid the smoke from her cigarette, and then asks if you have some medical condition that cigarette smoke aggravates?

That's deeply weird – and fails Damage Control's patented In Their Shoes™ test.

In her shoes, if I found out one of my guests was bothered by my smoking in my house, I'd say "Oh, my gosh, I'm so sorry about that, I didn't realize"– and butt out.

The job of host/hostess is to make guests feel comfortable, insofar as it's possible.

If you ask and she balks – well, that tells you a lot. If her habit trumps consideration of your comfort and well-being, I would think twice about RSVP-ing in the affirmative next time.

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