A response to Emily Patterson’s article, “Exeter would be right to ban smoking, and other colleges should follow,” published in “The Cherwell” (ed. 31/10/17)
I must begin by stating than I am not opposed to designated smoking areas or reasonable restrictions. I support Exeter’s efforts to enforce existing policies and regulate cigarette dispensing. The fact remains, though, that Emily Patterson’s article in The Cherwell this Tuesday was sorely lacking in concrete analysis of how a blanket ban on smoking might disproportionately impact student life at Exeter.
Smoking is a stigmatized habit and comes with its own host of assumptions pertaining to the socioeconomic or cultural identity of smokers. Moreover, chronically anxious individuals, as well as those of us who suffer from sensory hypersensitivity, often use smoking to manage symptoms that develop in over-stimulating college environments: including welfare teas, weekend pre-drinks, and all manner of seminars and classes. Alienation on the basis of these conditions can only prove harmful to demographics that Exeter has an ethical and legal obligation to protect—and this more than anything is what makes the “equal and opposite” fallacy in Patterson’s argument ring so hollow.
The day that every Oxford college fully provides for students experiencing addiction, anxiety, and hypersensitivity is the day that I gladly take my cigarettes out to Turl Street. Until then, we should work on strategies with a more sincere emphasis on progress and a more nuanced consideration of what “welfare” entails—who it privileges, who it undermines, and how its parameters might be reshaped to achieve a holistic definition of the term.
While Exeter students have a right to smoke-free spaces, we also have a right to spaces where the choice is ours to make, and where we do not feel ostracized for a practice imbibed with disparate, complex, and highly individualized meaning. I am aware of the dangers of smoking, and am in favor of ensuring that cigarette smoke affects non-smokers as little as possible. But I am unconvinced that a student’s desire to be sheltered from having to “walk by” smokers is adequate grounds for demanding that we all stand out on Turl Street at any time of day or night regardless of circumstance or underlying complications.
The question of what (if anything) Exeter owes its students, who hail from a wide variety of backgrounds and live alongside one another in relative harmony, is only valid insofar as it might engender compromise. To some extent, then, demands for complete protection from any form of smoke seem unrealistic and entitled. While students who smoke (as well as many non-smokers sympathetic to this situation) are working hard to find common ground, Patterson’s uncompromising stance and desire to forcibly regulate all student smokers to areas outside of our home does nothing to enact meaningful change. Her argument operates on an unstable premise where a complex issue deeply embedded in the fabric of student life is reduced to an inconvenience for those attempting to further a rigid idealization of college existence.
It should come as no surprise that the image Patterson’s article champions is not just smoke-free; it also lacks, by proxy, any serious dialogue surrounding the rights of disabled, chronically anxious, and addicted students. Patterson’s own assertion, that those of us concerned with the welfare of students with anxiety and pre-existing addictions are “missing the point,” stands testament to this fact. Patterson believes that a ban on smoking will send a “clear message,” and it certainly will—but the message would not be against smoking, per se. The message would be against students who smoke, which necessarily includes many of us from the aforementioned backgrounds. Non-smokers are entitled to smoke-free areas; but are they entitled to an entire campus scrubbed of discomforts if that comes at the stated expense of their peers?
I have attempted to verbalize just a few of the questions about identity, ability, and belonging that should inform Exeter’s official position on smoking. If these reasons do not constitute sufficient motive for us to consider a more reasonable compromise—one that does not knowingly alienate a large portion of students, not to mention faculty and staff, from the safety and familiarity of campus—than I don’t know what does. Patterson thinks that a blanket ban on campus smoking will help to improve the overall plight, but evidence and reason indicate the opposite. You cannot make an issue disappear by confining it to where it cannot be seen: especially not when that issue involves people, and especially not when those people are your peers.
I encourage Patterson, and Exeter Colllege as a whole, to reconsider their position. If we truly share a common goal in promoting student welfare, our energies are better spent finding a more holistic and reasonable long-term solution.