Ushering in the new year at the Smoking Deaths billboard above Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A. has become a somewhat morbid yet surprisingly meaningful tradition. Each year, just before midnight on Jan. 1, locals gather to watch as the numbers, which tally the nation's annual smoking-related deaths, are manually reset to zero. Onlookers aren't necessarily drawn by personal ties to smoking or cancer. A mixture of curiosity, camaraderie and community compel most to make the scene. Gideon Brower, in an affecting piece in the L.A. Times, describes the scene this past New Year's Eve: "About 30 celebrants … watched as the huge counter on the billboard slowly turned from 420,127 to six brightly lit zeros, and then to one zero. Some people cheered. The mood was light. Even the sign seemed to join the party: For this brief moment, there was not one smoking death in America. And then, inevitably, the counter turned over. One death. Then two. Then three. After that, people walked home or drove away. … By the time I left, the death toll was up to 18." The West L.A. gathering is infinitely more intimate, poignant and real than the the bombastic, mass-media-driven ball drop in Times Square. The life-and-death nature of the sign's message seems especially in tune to the trials, terrors and hard-won triumphs of daily existence. In the 60 seconds or so before the Smoking Deaths billboard begins its countdown anew, onlookers collectively exhale, sharing a renewed determination to press on. Photo by Gideon Brower.
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