Fourteen percent of New Yorkers smoke. That’s one in seven people. I am that seventh person, the seventh that the Columbia University Senate voted last May to ostracize, inconvenience, and marginalize with its freedom-curtailing measure to take effect in July.
When people ask me why I smoke, I tell them I’m an addict. When they ask me why I began, I tell them because of my friends, like most other smokers. They ask me if I regret starting. For a number of very personal reasons, my answer is no, and always will be. I’m physically fit, and I don’t take drugs. I’m perfectly aware that smoking isn’t particularly rich in vitamin C—you don’t need to tell me. Smoking is something that I get pleasure from, something that relaxes me in the middle of a stressful day. Where you shotgun a watery excuse for beer or blaze a joint or stuff your face with greasy fries and artificial burgers from JJ’s, I take a couple of puffs on my cancer sticks and get back to work.
We all have our vices. Smoking is just one of the easiest one to pick on. I recently saw an anti-smoking campaign whose slogan was, “If you smoke, you stink.” Fair enough. But would they have dared to put up a poster saying, “If you’re fat, you’re ugly”? Why not? Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in New York, and yet I don’t see the University trying to stop dining halls from serving heart attacks with a side of fries on a daily basis.
The new limitations on smoking are, of course, with the interests of non-smokers in mind. To those individuals: The effects of passive smoke are no worse than those of living in a polluted city such as New York. In fact, the only people proven to be affected by passive smoke are those living with a regular smoker. Forcing me to drag my non-smoking friends to an area of concentrated smokers is probably far worse for them.
But more than this, the restrictions demonstrate an underlying judgement made by the University Senate about smokers: “You, Smoker, are a weak and foolish person. Fear not, however, for we are here to help.” It is an unfair and condescending judgment that is neither helpful nor conducive to making people quit. Smokers don’t need to be told that what they’re doing is bad for them. They know, and they choose to do it anyway. Nor is telling them they can’t smoke around campus going to stop them, primarily because, unless the University is planning on deploying smoking police to patrol the campus, it’s not going to work. Enforcement would be costly, and people already smoke on Barnard’s campus when they aren’t supposed to, for crying out loud. If you’re genuinely going to stop me smoking on my way to class, all that’s going to happen is I’m going to be late.
The minute a “No Secondhand Smoke” campaign comes up with convincing evidence that secondhand smoke is a significant cause of death, I will eat my hat. I will spin on a dime and agree that limitations on smoking are in the interests of the whole community. But in the meantime, I would appreciate not being judged. I would appreciate for the University not to impinge upon freedoms. I would appreciate for the smokers’ community, a minority as worthy as any other, to have its rights protected. It is not the University’s role to preach morality, or health, or lifestyle, when it does not affect anyone but the perpetrator.
I would like to make it clear that I am not trying to put the smoker on a pedestal. It’s a terrible habit, and I have huge respect for those who stay away from it and nothing but sympathy for those who have suffered as a result. But before you judge the next smoker you see, remind yourself that you don’t know his or her background. Attempting to limit smoking is no less an arbitrary assertion of power than stopping fatties from getting seconds. Columbia is a place where each individual should be allowed to make his or her own choices, whether or not President Bollinger approves, and these restrictions are but the first step down the slippery slope to total control of students’ personal lives.
A round of applause, a glass raised, to Columbia then. To hypocrisy, to unfair assumptions, and to screwing minorities. Cheers.
The author is a Columbia College first-year with a prospective major in history.
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