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New Year Countdown to 0 Smoking Deaths at West LA Billboard

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Just as you've always sort of suspected, there is a New Year's ritual around the depressing Smoking Deaths billboard in West LA (you know, the one on Santa Monica Blvd. near Veteran that ticks off the statistical number of smoking-related deaths). At midnight on December 31,

Abundio Mireles, a middle-aged guy with a mustache who works for the sign company...climbs up to the roof of the small commercial building that supports the billboard, accesses the computer at the base of the sign and sets the counter back to zero. He uses his cellphone to time it. He says as long as he's been doing it, almost 20 years now, there have always been people standing there in the street, waiting. Gideon Brower writes about the tradition in the LA Times; he took part for the first time this year, joining about 30 people, including "a group of twentysomethings" and an older couple who have a tradition of bringing their daughter. At 11:59 pm on December 31, 2011, the counter read 420,127. At midnight, the numbers changed one by one to zeros, then all but one zero disappeared. William E. Bloomfield, who ran a coin-op machine business, put the billboard up in 1987.
· L.A.'s quirky Smoking Deaths billboard [LAT]