A conspicuous haze of controversy

With strict anti-smoking laws becoming more and more prevalent around the country, Williams finds itself facing a dilemma that pits individual liberties against the health risks of secondhand smoke.

The proposed suggestion to outlaw smoking in all dormitories on campus differs little from current College policy, but is emblematic of rising intolerance against smokers. According to the guidelines presently in place, all common areas and interior public spaces are off limits, restricting student and faculty smokers to either singles in specified dorms or the great outdoors. Â

Making all dormitories smoke-free is in many ways a very appealing possibility. Relatively few non-smokers enjoy living in rooms previously occupied by heavy smokers. Even when the current policy is strictly followed and enforced, the smell of cigarettes tends to diffuse throughout the greater area, spreading down hallways and into ventilation systems. For reasons such as these, a Harvard study has found that one fourth of colleges in America ban smoking in dorms, a percentage which appears to be on the rise. Secondhand smoke is well-documented and a matter of real concern, especially for individuals with a family history of cancer.

Yet moving beyond the obvious health concerns, the attack on smoking lends itself to a simple query: Why have Americans in recent years moved so strongly to ostracize smokers, a group which sparks little or no similar debate in other countries? And how, in an era when tolerance and pluralism are touted time and time again, has intolerance of smokers become an acceptable attitude?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City was recently quoted as saying, “You’ve got to be stupid, really dumb to smoke.” The amount of time and money devoted to anti-smoking education today brings such a remark under scrutiny. Most smokers are not “stupid” – that is, unaware of the dangers of tobacco use. Rather, they have weighed the pros and cons and have made a personal decision to live with the long-term health consequences. To some – including one-third of high school students – the costs are worth the benefits of a higher metabolism and an outlet for stress.

Bloomberg was the driving force behind New York City’s controversial new directives, which outlaw smoking not only in office buildings, private clubs and restaurants, but also in that last bastion of smoking bliss, the local bar. When Mayor Rudy Giuliani implemented initial restrictions several years ago, critics were adamant that taxable sales receipts at effected establishments would fall significantly. But in a surprising development, restaurants in New York City fared notably better than their compatriots in the rest of the state. No longer constrained by qualms concerning the economic consequences of strict antismoking policies, cities across America are now embracing the idea of new regulations.

The conservative response has occasionally been one of outrage. Peggy Noonan, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, expressed her anger thus: “Modern liberals are not culturally inclined toward courtesy. They are inclined toward knowing what’s good for you and passing ordinances to make sure you get the picture.”

From the perspective of personal liberties, the transition from regulation to intolerance is somewhat alarming. Acting in the interests of society’s health is far different from acting in the interests of society’s stigmas. But even in light of Noonan’s objections, secondhand smoke cannot be ignored, and when coupled with the recently documented economic incentive to adopt strict policies, the justification of restrictive action becomes increasingly clear.

Several decades ago, not many would have imagined a world in which smoking was vilified rather than glamorized. While the attention being paid to the dangers of secondhand smoke is often excessive when one considers the myriad health risks confronting administrations today, smokers must face the reality of public majorities hostile to their interests and the ultimate eradication of smoking from interior spaces shared with nonsmokers.