Ashes to Ashes

Posted by Jake Dolgenos

The Student Affairs subcommittee of the Institutional Policy Planning Committee recently began looking for student input regarding the College's smoking policy and, while nothing has been formally declared or decided, it has become known that one of the options is to make Skidmore College a smoke-free campus.

After listening to plenty of hyperbole from those in favor of such a switch and those totally opposed (as well as quite a few more reasonable middle-ground positions), I have some thoughts on the matter as well as my own opinion, the opinion, I should clarify, of a non-smoker, with friends who smoke, whose blood flows with a very deep-rooted (and in this case, somewhat contradictory) strain of California liberalism.

The argument for banning smoking on campus takes two main forms, with plenty of supplemental irritation. First, health-conscious students point to cigarette smoke as an acknowledged carcinogen, and cite personal health risks as their motivation for wanting smokers out of their airspace. Second, plenty of non-smokers just don't like walking behind smokers across campus, walking through a cloud of smoke to get to class or their residence hall, or counting the dozens of discarded butts that litter the ground around resident hall entrances and North Woods trails.

Arguments from the other side of the issue have focused mainly (if, I believe, unfortunately) on the case that smoking cigarettes, as an adult of the United States (of 'Merica), is a protected freedom that shouldn't be unduly discarded at the minor protests of the uncomfortable.

Health issues have been regarded as frivolous, with the (accurate) point made that wisps of scattering smoke are not sufficient to cause the cancer that protesting students seem so scared of. Students who are merely irritated at the amount of smoke they must routinely walk through and the lingering smells and unpleasant areas smoking creates on campus are met with occasionally deriding skepticism.

Some have phrased it more eloquently (or using more UPPERCASE and exclamation points), but the main response to the objections of the inconvenienced has been that the freedom to smoke is more important than remedying occasional irritation, and that smoking is a fact of life in this country (and even more so around the world). When we graduate, our world will not be less filled with smokers, so why give students an unrealistic experience at the expense of students who smoke?

There is often the adjoining (and, again, somewhat unfortunate) reminder that students were never presented with a non-smoking Skidmore, and chose to be a part of a culture that supports smoking when they applied and chose to attend the College.

Let me tell you my problems with these counter-arguments, and then why I ultimately agree with them.

First, secondhand smoke is irritating to non-smokers, and while I don't personally see a problem with the areas of campus in which I have come to generally avoid lingering, having a conversation about which areas of campus should be zones where smoking is encouraged is a perfectly legitimate topic of debate. Folks who have simply asked that smoking be discouraged around the entrances to academic buildings, and possibly moved from the areas they dominate now to others around campus are asking for what I believe to be reasonable things, and those who do so politely should be met with reasonable arguments. While they are only occasional irritations, their removal doesn't seem to require unduly strenuous action on the part of smokers, and I firmly believe that both sides could be satisfied with a good compromise.

Second, and more importantly, there is a tone to the arguments made on the side of smokers (or, again, sympathetic non-smokers) that I believe, in the end, to be damaging to their case. Smoking is called a "right," and an issue of "freedom" as the result of a "personal choice" that shouldn't be challenged by the College. Here's something that supporters of a free campus for smokers should keep in mind:

Skidmore is a private institution, and the administration can and will regulate smoking on this campus without your input, against your protests and despite your claims that it violates your personal liberties. The College could implement this policy with the full knowledge that it will not be completely enforceable, that it will not stop smoking on campus completely and that it will piss a lot of students off. 

In addition, students have every right to come together and decide what they want their college to be. Skidmore doesn't have a smoking culture because it's Skidmore, or a small liberal arts college, Skidmore has an open smoking culture because Skidmore students smoke and the administration has not felt that this culture threatens our institutional credibility, the quality of life of non-smoking students or the health of the campus as a whole.

If these facts change, if students no longer want a smoker-friendly campus or the administration feels that the culture has become threatening to any of our institution's guiding principles (as they routinely do when they implement changes to the Alcohol and Other Drugs policy) the policies will change and Skidmore will change, even if it takes, as folks have pointed out, many years to completely do so.

Skidmore will do it.

Other colleges have done it.

The country, as a whole, is slowly removing smoking from public and private spaces.

This is the context in which this debate is taking place, and it worries me a great deal when I see smokers argue as if they are on the obvious moral and legal high ground. Overly defensive speeches about rights and personal choices will only guarantee that the voice for what I personally consider to be the correct choice in this matter will be relegated to the sidelines of a debate that will take place among students and members of the faculty, staff and administration who are willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of both sides of this issue.

So smokers, take a deep breath, and join me in making the reasonable case that Skidmore's smoking culture is adaptable, but ultimately an important freedom in which a sizable portion of Skidmore's students partake.

I end on this note of (I hope) reasonable objection to any broad campus smoking ban:

The vast majority of Skidmore smokers are responsible, more than willing to move a few extra feet from the doors on campus and don't have to do a better job of cleaning after themselves because they already make sure their cigarettes don't get left around. The areas that smokers hang around most frequently now have become smoking areas organically and, if students and administration want to transition smokers to a different location, it can be reasonably expected that this will take some time, and any new smoking areas should be as convenient and socially accessible as those areas currently acknowledged as heavily used by smokers.

Enforcement of anti-smoking policies would be difficult and cause additional tension between Campus Safety and the student body.

Smokers will be forced off-campus with more frequency, and smoke in areas without ashtrays which will lead to more littering, not necessarily less, especially in North Woods and other wooded areas-precisely where butts will be difficult to locate and clean.

Smokers will increasingly find ways to smoke indoors, causing damage to housing and increasing the risk of fire.

And finally, whenever we, as a campus, debate whether or not to regulate or censor behavior, it's worth taking a long look at whether the benefits to our student culture outweigh the costs. I believe in this community as a place of personal freedom, where we learn to talk about our issues amongst ourselves (as we are doing now), and not rely on administrative oversight.

So non-smokers, now is your chance to make yourself heard, as (I hope) I have, without impinging on a freedom some hold to be valuable. Now is the chance to discuss possible changes to the smoking policy and air your grievances without, in the end, relying on regulation and rules. You don't have to awkwardly demand that smokers standing inches from the doors to Bolton Hall move further away, you can take this opportunity to stand up and say that these behaviors make you unhappy. And that's what we're beginning to see: non-smokers taking advantage of the forums provided to lodge legitimate complaints against the current smoking culture.

Smokers, if you want to keep this issue a debate and avoid campus-wide changes to the smoking policy, listen and respond reasonably to these complaints. If you don't, you're already giving up your rights by denying yourself an equal say in this debate.

Take it seriously, and they will take you seriously.

Jake Dolgenos is a member of the class of 2014. He reads boats and rows books, and cries tie-dye tears when he sees someone toss a cigarette out of a car window.

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