Are there ashtrays in heaven? R.I.P., Marlboro Man.

Don’t look now, America, but we’re running out of Marlboro Men.

And no, I don’t mean your Uncle Louie who works for sanitation back in Philly. I mean the real McCoys, the guys who appear in the ads. The latest to go was Eric Lawson, 72, who was the face of Marlboros in print ads from 1978 to 1981. He died Jan. 10 in San Luis Obispo.

What killed him? Smoking, of course. Or, more accurately, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is often caused by smoking. Lawson started smoking at 14.

Lawson isn’t the only Marlboro Man to die of smoking-related causes. My colleague Matt Pearce told the others’ tales in his story Monday.

Now, if you live in Los Angeles, you may not recognize smoking for the scourge it once was — and still is in some parts of the country. That’s because in L.A., there are only about 116 smokers left — though west of the 405 Freeway, they are believed to be extinct.

(Yes, there have been unconfirmed reports of smokers being spotted late at night in some bars in Hollywood, but authorities are skeptical.)

(Also, there was talk of reintroducing some smokers to Santa Monica, just to restore the balance of healthful/unhealthful people that God and/or Mother Nature intended. But threats from hipsters and longtime residents alike, plus the uncertain prospects for the smokers in such an alien environment, caused officials to scrap the idea.)

Anyway, much like the California condor, we in SoCal like to keep a few smokers around, just to remind us of the old days. Of course, there’s also the fact that, given our air quality, Angelenos don’t have to smoke to inhale noxious stuff.

Still, as successful as we’ve been in eliminating the devil sticks, there are times when the anti-smoking crusade gives me pause. Take a look at Lawson in that Marlboro ad (above) and tell me there isn’t something, I don’t know, something just so American about it all.

It pains me to say it, since I don’t smoke and never have, but I feel a twinge of nostalgia looking at that face. My dad was a smoker for much of his life; I see his face there too. Yes, I know it’s an ad, I know I’m being manipulated, but I still just like it.

And there’s something else: Americans do lots of things that aren’t healthy. We eat too much; we drink too much; pretty soon, in many states, we’ll smoke too much pot. So why make smoking the poster child for all that’s bad? Is it so we can drink beer and eat fried chicken and snooze on the La-Z-Boy and still feel good about ourselves because we don’t smoke?

Lawson’s wife, Susan, told the Associated Press this about her husband and smoking: “He knew the cigarettes had a hold on him. He knew, yet he still couldn’t stop.”

I don’t know. But maybe, just maybe, Lawson liked smoking. Maybe it’s a guilty pleasure for lots of folks.

And maybe, just maybe, there are ashtrays in heaven.

R.I.P, Marlboro Man.


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