'Smokers are subject to the sort of vilification that, in the past, usually heralded vicious oppression'

September 14, 2007

When Bob Dylan refused to "go down to Oxford Town", his scruples about the famous university there were understandable. For the subject of the song was Oxford, Mississippi, home of the state's leading school where, at the time, no blacks were allowed. Now Oxford, Mississippi, is acquiring a new sort of fame in another crusade. This time, the victims of discrimination are smokers.

From September 3, smokers have been banned not only from buildings but also from most of the outdoor campus. Smoking continues only in "designated lots" in 30 car parks around the thousand-acre site.

From reports in the university's newspaper and such other organs of the press that have bothered to take an interest, local smokers have responded with remarkable humility and unquestioning acquiescence. "If they told me I couldn't smoke, I wouldn't," says Ronny Ellis, who works in the telecommunications department. "You can't go against the flow," admits instructor Eric Williamson. "You go with what's instituted."

These submissive voices contrast alarmingly with the tone of proponents of the ban: they tend to be variously sententious, censorious, intolerant, vituperative and bristling with dislike and even hatred. A student responsible for conducting guided tours of the campus - a vital part of every US college's promotional and recruiting activities - has said he feels ashamed when he walks his party past fellow students who are smoking. Others express repugnance and fear when smokers get near them or a puff wafts towards their nostrils. Justifying the ban, the university's assistant attorney reports "a lot of complaints from people who had to walk through smoke". This conjures up an astonishing and unconvincing picture of a heca-tomb of cigarettes clouding the campus. Surely, if there really has been lingering smoke around the university smokers can hardly have exhaled enough to cause it. "People who are offended by smoking," the attorney adds, "tend to be vocal about it."

The official reason for the ban is that "the Surgeon-General has said there is no such thing as a safe level of passive smoking". But it is an obvious abuse of language to speak of "passive smoking" in a thousand acres of open air. The most a nicophobe - if I may coin the word - need do, if confronted by a blue pall, is edge a couple of paces out of the way, rather than marching aggressively by the smoker and voicing a discourteous complaint. It's not much to ask out of respect for a habit that, though one may not share it or may even deplore it, has been regarded as normal, sociable and honourable in our civilisation for half a millennium. I've never had the pleasure of visiting "Ole Miss", as the alumni affectionately call it, but I've no doubt that if it is anything like other US campuses there are plenty of unbanned sources of far more noxious fumes than a passing cigarette can yield - cars, trucks, incinerators, air-conditioning plants and students' incredibly smoky, smelly barbecues. The reasons for the ban have little to do with health and a lot to do with culture.

Hostility to smokers is way beyond any reasonable level in our society. Those whom society wants to persecute it first drives into ghettos. In effect, we are doing just that with smokers by banning them from congenial environments and driving them on to pavements, street corners or doorways where formerly down-and-outs could find a decent refuge. Confining them to car parks - the licensed eyesores of any campus - is a calculated insult. Smokers are subject to the sort of vilification that, in the past, usually heralded vicious repression. Public health campaigns smear them, in effect, as dirty, smelly, stupid and dangerous; whereas man for man and woman for woman they observe the same levels of cleanliness as everybody else. The smell of tobacco is entirely a matter of taste and no worse, to my nostrils, than an excess of cheap scent. And to smoke in knowledge of the health risks is not necessarily stupid - it is, from the smoker's perspective, a rational choice that defies what happen at present to be commonplace values. The extent to which smokers endanger the rest of us hardly justifies hating and hounding them. Most health scares tend to cause exaggerated anxiety in those uncritical enough to be susceptible to their messages. As long as there are plenty of non-smoking venues for those worried about passive smoking we can tolerate smokers, just as we tolerate other hazardous activities, such as driving, dancing and golf.

I had better declare my interest. I wouldn't call myself a smoker, but occasionally, in appropriate company, I have a cigar after dinner. Maybe like Dylan - although admittedly for less worthy reasons - I had better stay away from Oxford Town.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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