A breath of fresh air or lights out for liberty?

Smoking can be a force for good, so stop sneering and breathe easy. Rafi Alam lets freedom ring

Smoking can be a force for good, so stop sneering and breathe easy. Rafi Alam lets freedom ring

Sorry first-year tobacco aficionados – this year Sydney University has gone smoke-free.

Further apologies go to returning smokers who had become accustomed to lighting a cigarette on their way to the Woolley Building, taking a smoko break from studying outside the Law Library, or scabbing a few durries outside of Manning.

In the name of a “healthy and safe environment” for staff and students, Sydney Uni administration has banned smoking in places other than the ‘Quadrangle & Library Precinct’, the ‘City Road Precinct’, the ‘Blackburn Precinct’ (?), and the ‘Ross St. Precinct’ (??). Oh, and a few places in Darlington too.

The University of Sydney Union has also ceased their sale of tobacco.

There’s a case to be made for this, of course. Students shouldn’t be made to suffer passive smoking, which is a real issue. It makes your clothes stink, which may or may not be an issue for your professors or tutors. It also kills you.

But is that – and I say this without a shred of irony – a reason to ban it?

Consider for a moment other things that can kill you. Alcohol. Riding a bike. Driving a car. Heights. Stress. Burgers. None of which are banned, most of which thrive in a university environment. A bit of a comparative stretch? Perhaps. But the point is that the hysteria over smoking – uniquely, specifically, and strangely only smoking – seeks to marginalise smokers and their odorous lifestyle.

Smoking is not a silly new fad that aims to destroy your body and nothing else (like ‘ice’). It has a history, is ingrained in culture, and facilitates social intercourse – if not other forms of intercourse. From Freud to Bogart to Churchill to Sartre to Castro to Orwell to Hitchens: politicians, visionaries, writers, entertainers, and more have eased the mind and lingered on their thoughts through the haze of smoke and the hoarse coughs tobacco yields.

Smoking can bring people together. Ever heard of a smokers’ caucus? It is when smokers of all ideologies, tendencies, and perspectives get together in union of their filthy habit. It can produce deals, settlements, and friendships.

But the crux of an argument against smoking bans is not the artistic and intellectual dimension to smoking. No, it’s that in a free and liberal society, people need to stop trying to save others from themselves. Is there something noble in telling people the risks they take and the consequences they incur? Sure, but need there be more? Need there be regulation, rules, parochial paternalism? Why not let them be. Let people have a burger bursting with calories, abuse their liver with a few drinks, and a cigarette for the denouement.

Let’s not forget that staff smoke as well, and the only thing worse than a stressed out student who can’t smoke during a break in a two-hour lecture is a stressed out professor who marks your papers.

Second-hand smoking is a more sensitive issue. It is true that people have died from passive smoking. But these are due to long, continuous periods amongst smokers and smoking, not being four metres from them eight minutes a month.

Nobody is locking you inside a portaloo with a smoker – if someone lights up nearby you, just move a few metres away.

To an extent, the hypochondria over smoking hurts the so-called non-smokers’ rights movement. Marginalising smokers embitters them with spite and resentment, causes (even more) stress, and creates an ‘us vs. them’ social discourse. They become a folk devil, charged with polluting our air and killing our children and puppies.

Legislation and regulation against smoking makes them a legal minority. Instead of cultivating a culture of etiquette where a smoker can understand when s/he is unable to smoke and can respectfully move away when asked to, we get a culture of entitlement, where non-smokers delegate their responsibility to a higher authority, and instead of engaging with the smoker, they simply sneer.

So, if you’re a smoker who doesn’t want to buy an electronic cigarette, or an ally who just really liked Manning Bar when there were revellers on the balcony smoking away as people are wont to do, write a letter to the university or just light one up anyway.

Rafi Alam is a joker, he’s a smoker, he’s a mid-night toker

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