“So smoking is the perfect way to commit suicide without actually dying. I smoke because it’s bad, it’s really simple.”
“To me, being grown-up meant smoking cigarettes, drinking cocktails, and dressing up in high heels and glamourous outfits.”
“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
Despite the widespread awareness as to the various ill-effects of smoking, the cultural representations of smoking across media remain somewhat positive. The film noir tradition employed cigarette smoke to lend an aura of mystery and cynicism to the lead character and the seductive vamp look is incomplete unless the femme fatale is portrayed as a seasoned smoker blowing perfect smoke rings into the air through her crimson lips. Modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes fall flat until the detective’s history of drug use and smoking is adequately dealt with. Jazz and reggae music is closely associated with cannabis smoking. Paintings depicting the “noble savage” usually feature a pipe. The cultural stereotypes of the angst-ridden teenager, the jaded writer/artist, the failed nonconformist and the ageing lonely man are often not stereotypical enough, without the compulsory “smoking” aspect.
Yet despite the adverse and alarming health consequences of regular smoking that has already been enumerated in great detail by anti-smoking and health campaigns, smoking continues to be a hugely popular cultural activity, particularly in college campuses even though smoking in public places is technically a legal crime and is punishable by law.
My article does not seek to condemn smokers nor pass value judgments against them nor is it a plea for them to quit. Rather I wish to address the issue of passive smoking that I feel is rarely discussed and that of the environmental damage that the careless disposal of cigarette butts entails. Given that we are the citizens of a “democratic” country, I believe that all individuals have the right to live their lives in any way they choose, and if a particular adult wishes to engage in activities that are harmful to his/her health, society may caution but not ultimately stop that individual. For the “right to die” is certainly as important as the “right to live”, and the reason I employ this particular strain of logic is to draw your attention to the fact that there is a critical difference between rights and duties, and while smoking/drinking/drugs may be considered by some as necessary as a basic right and an exercise of free will, smoking in the presence of non-willing non-smokers is an extremely thoughtless, insensitive and careless thing to do.
Thus, if an individual considers smoking to be an activity one is legally entitled to engage in, he/she must also acknowledge the duty to smoke in a responsible manner and do their utmost to not affect another individual or the environment in the process- because the functioning of society is not merely defined by the exercising of democratic rights but also by the performing of one’s duties as directed by one’s conscience. In short, a society that focuses more on rights and less on duties fosters further selfishness while a duty-focused mindset can perhaps help create a more empathetic and tolerant landscape.
I must make it clear at the outset, that I am by no means suggesting a ban on smoking in college campuses. Smoking is but one of the many questionable practices a majority of college students engage in, and it must also be noted that several non-questionable practices such as consumption of junk food is equally dangerous. Yet it can be argued that while all other activities require a willing participant, passive smoking does not. Second-hand smoke is responsible for the same diseases of the lungs and the heart capable of perpetuating the same increased cancer risks, pregnancy complications, diabetes and of course death. In fact, research points to the fact that sidestream smoke is in fact four times more poisonous than mainstream smoke and the scientific consensus has universally agreed that passive smoking is extremely harmful and not to be underestimated.
Before moving on, I wish to explore the central issue as to why individuals smoke in the first place and the idea of what constitutes a “public” place. For Rahul Bhattacharya (name changed) , an undergraduate student of English literature, smoking like most people began as a curiosity:
“I’ve always been fascinated by the act, however morbid that might sound . My earliest childhood memories are of my grandfather spinning the wildest of yarns for me, always with a cigarette glowing from between his fingers. One could say I romanticised the idea a bit too much, but it’d be completely unfair to pin in on him. I did it, I still do it, because I like it; full aware of all the consequences that are to follow. Objectively speaking, it perhaps serves as a substitute for the childhood tendency to follow the whims of the moment, snatch a short period of pleasure and respite from the work that surrounds one. It is also, in its own way, a reward- one I can give myself whenever I want, for sitting through a particularly gruelling class or lecture session, for example. I’ve been smoking for almost three years now. With friends, mostly.”
His friend Rohan (name changed) has a similar story as well:
“I’ve been smoking regularly since I was 15. I remember even as an 8 year old or maybe even less, I used to really like the smell of tobacco being smoked and so when I finally decided on making a habit (read addiction) of it, it was neither mere curiosity nor any particular incident that triggered it, but only the fulfillment of certain long-standing desires rendered possible by the allowance that I had just started receiving from my parents. I smoke both alone and with friends.”
Meanwhile Jaya (name changed) a student of Comparative Literature points to the fact that parental behavior may foster the habit among youngsters:
“I started smoking in the 11th standard. I do not remember exactly why I started but I wasn’t ever curious about it because my dad was a chain smoker. It was a thrill stealing smokes from him but unfortunately it grew into a habit. But the “cool” factor wasn’t there, I was almost always very shy and only started smoking openly when I came to college because it wasn’t a big deal here unlike all other spaces of my existence.”
This naturally brings us to the issue of what can be considered a “public” place and what cannot. As Madhuri Sen (name changed), a Sociology freshman perceptively points out:
“I have smoked very few times in campus the excitement from the freedom to be able to do that lasts for a very short while. I think it’s a bit stereotypical for us to smoke in campus-we do it purely because we can. These same people wouldn’t dare touch a fag in front of their parents. I stopped smoking in the campus because I did not want to be stereotypical and I wanted to respect the institution I go to . I’m not saying others disrespect it by smoking but I feel I do so I don’t. Also public smoking isn’t a good thing. If you can’t do it in metros or other public places you should not do it in a campus either. Certain things should be curtailed.”
Given that the college campus is often synonymous with freedom and liberation, many youngsters believe that smoking in a college campus is not the same as smoking in a park or at a restaurant, although both places may have an equal number of non-consenting individuals who are exposed to the smoke. Janhabi Mukherjee, another English student acknowledges that “smoking on college campus is technically a legal crime.” However she also adds,
“I do think, that yes, perhaps adults should be given the freedom to make their own choices, and that a campus shouldn’t technically really be treated as a ‘public’ place. So while I don’t smoke, I realise people should have the freedom to do so on campus if they wish to.”
She counters the ill-effects of public smoking by usually “trying to move some little distance away from lighted cigarettes.” If there is someone she is talking to, she usually requests them not to smoke in close proximity to her.
However, this is not a fool proof method. Rahul Bhattacharya confesses that he has “no qualms with smoking in a college campus” although he is aware that “most figures of authority do.” He elaborates:
“The only objection I have, and this is relevant to all kinds of public smoking, is having reluctant others inhale the second hand smoke. At the cost of sounding self righteous, I’d say that I’ve made a rule out of actually asking people whether they mind me smoking in their presence. But this, again, is not at all foolproof. People will, more often than not, feel pressured into answering in the negative in order to be nice or not seem rude.”
A chain smoker of six years upon being asked replied that he had no idea as to whether to take the “good” or “ bad” side, adding that “Smoking inside the college campus is just an attribute of a college campus.”
Most of the passive recipients of cigarette smoke seem to have accepted the situation. Dev Shah (name changed), a non-smoker pursuing a B.Sc in Mathematics who has friends who “breathe less and smoke more” concedes that initially he used to be a tad hostile towards the practice:
“Technically, one is not supposed to smoke inside the campus, but no one cares. But well, now it no longer matters. Some days, I find myself enveloped in cigarette smoke all around. It certainly does not feel good, but I guess I have grown adjusted to it. I am very well aware of the health dangers of passive smoking. I don’t think I could do anything other than to just move away from the place when I feel like I can’t take the smoke anymore.”
As his friend, Ekalavya Chaudhuri, a second-year student of English succinctly points out:
“ I think there should be designated spaces for smoking, because India being a free democratic country and passive smoking are both realities.”
While a few smokers, like Jaya take the issue seriously and do not smoke around non-smoker friends or in public places, most individuals seem largely apathetic and continue to smoke in crowded canteens and litter the university premises with non-biodegradable cigarette butts.
Paramita Purakayastha another English major, neatly sums up the argument as follows :
“I don’t have any problem with people smoking in the campus provided they don’t do so in class or in similar public, formal situations, they maintain the cleanliness of the place where they are smoking, and they respect the wishes of the people who have problems with smoking.”
Ultimately, it is not “smoking” that is the problem, but rather the act of smoking in an irresponsible manner, be it in a college campus or elsewhere that is the issue. It is my request that smokers may continue to smoke in secluded areas of the campus and definitely not in a space like the canteen or in the corridors which may affect the non-smoking students, especially during recess, and that smokers should think twice before lighting a cigarette in front of non-smokers.
As stated before, I do not believe that banning smoking, even if it is justified on grounds of public health and morality will ever be a solution, simply because banning never works and that society instead of interfering in an individual’s unhealthy habits (smoking, drug use, etc) should rather focus on alleviating the causes that foster such habits (allot funds for research into cures for mental illness and stress disorders). Also, while anti-smoking campaigns are increasingly relevant, the decision to quit is an individual’s own free choice.
At the end of the day, smoking does not affect only the smokers. It affects everyone. Ask any wife dying of cancer who was married to a chain smoker. All I am asking for is a bit more understanding and empathy: think twice before you smoke. After all, we’re all gonna die pretty soon, but most of us don’t wanna die just yet.
This article of mine was edited by Abhijan Gupta and originally published in EyeZine