Writer discovers macabre way some herald the new year

Eric Pfeiffer
The Sideshow

Photo by Gideon Brower
Photo by Gideon Brower

Photo by Gideon Brower

For the past 25 years, millions of commuters have driven past an unusual billboard in Los Angeles that keeps an ongoing count of of people who have died from smoking-related illnesses each year.

The billboard itself reads, "Smoking Deaths This Year," followed by the always upward-ticking count and the ominous words, "And Counting."

But what happens when the annual clock resets to zero? Playwright and screenwriter Gideon Brower wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last weekend in which he chronicled his experience watching the smoking billboard reset to zero on New Years Eve. Brower discovered that each year, dozens of people gather underneath the billboard to commemorate its reset. When the clock strikes midnight on New Years the clock resets to zero. But it's only a temporary reprieve as the new smoking death statistics begin to appear on the board.

"They aren't there because it's about smoking, or cancer. They're there because they want to celebrate the New Year with other people, to mark something--the passage of time, the dawn of a New Year--that is happening to all of us whether we like it or not," Brower tells Yahoo News. "For me, the event in general has significance--the idea that people are using a rather grim billboard to form a community, to improvise a way to celebrate New Year's Eve together. There's something ironic and self-aware about it, yet completely sincere at the same time."

The ACS provides minute-by-minute updated statistics but the billboard itself was actually started 25 years ago by local businessman William E. Bloomfield, a former smoker.

"It's a very unique and unconventional way to raise awareness about tobacco use," American Cancer Society (ACS) spokesman Eric Beikmann told Yahoo News in a phone interview. "It's a reminder to the thousands of people who drive by it each day." ACS estimates that 443,000 people will die from smoking related illnesses this year, an average of 1,213 per day, Beikmann said.

The Smoking Deaths billboard has had its own moments in the Hollywood spotlight, most recently showing up in a scene of 2003's The Italian Job.

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