Where There’s Smoke

At the beginning of this month, I received an email from one of my online students. She told me that she was confused about an assignment and needed some help. “I can go to the learning lab,” she continued, “but the last time I went the lady who was assisting people with English was allergic to cigarette smoke and she could smell it on me and I don’t want anyone to have to get an allergic reaction or anything just because they are helping me. ” I was outraged by this student’s experience (to say nothing of her writing skills)–especially by her acceptance of responsibility for something that was patently not her fault. I reminded her that she has the same rights as anyone else to receive services from the learning center and encouraged her to insist on another tutor if she ever had a similar experience. When I saw a colleague smoking in the designated dunce corner on campus, I was reminded of the incident and told her about it. She was not surprised. A student of hers reported a similar experience; one of the other employees of the learning center had asked her not to smoke before coming for tutoring because the smell of cigarette smoke is repulsive.

I do not smoke, but my decision to abstain grants me neither moral superiority nor carte blanche to behave boorishly toward those who do. Especially in today’s ultrasensitive culture, when we kowtow to those who perceive microaggressions and provide trigger warnings for every potential offense,  these egregious situations disturb me greatly. And there seems to be no quarter to provide relief.

I do understand that one might suffer from asthma or a small range of other conditions in which exposure to cigarette smoke represents a health hazard. It’s even possible–but in my experience, highly unlikely–that the person in the learning center had such a condition. However, the homepage of this campus service touts its availability to all registered students, its generous operating hours, and its wide variety of services and even includes this invitation: “Stop by for assistance in reading, grammar, and math at any time.” The students bear no responsibility for the physical health of the employees. Nor should a tutor–especially the well-seasoned matron who made the remark about the student’s repulsive smell–feel that civil behavior extends only to those who happen to share her circumscribed set of behaviors.

Regrettably, those who smoke manage to fall outside the ever-expanding list of protected classes and subclasses. Instructors would ask male students to cover their underwear or females to cover their nipples only with serious risk of quick retribution for racial discrimination or sexual harassment. They would be on only slightly firmer ground if they asked students to refrain from smelling like patchouli or ethnic cooking. I was so intimidated by the fear of offense that I allowed a student to bring his light saber to class for several weeks; he was a partisan of the cosplay and furry fandom subcultures. But college employees seem to feel free to express their disdain for smokers.

Far from being protected by fiat–or even by that rapidly encroaching fear that someone, somewhere might be offended–smoking is actually demonized. Even in North Carolina, that bastion of big tobacco where I have made my home for the last forty years, children are taught in school not just that smoking is bad for their health, but that smokers themselves are bad–as in evil. Cigarettes and cigars have notoriously been removed from iconic photographs of Churchill and FDR–and Clement Hurd, the illustrator of Goodnight, Moon and The Runaway Bunny. And of course, it is no accident that on contemporary television programs, only the racists and child pornographers would dare to light up a Marlboro or a Winston. Although I haven’t made a statistical study, I would wager that more media protagonists smoke marijuana than tobacco.

In the effort to locate a legal sanctuary for those who remain outside the magic circle of protected classes, I first searched the student and faculty handbooks published by our college. The only references to smoking were restrictions and prohibitions. Under “student rights” I found freedom of expression, but I fear our society has long since abandoned any such freedom, either verbal or behavioral, on college campuses.  The handbooks specifically mention intimidation and harassment only as related to Title IX issues of sex and (now) gender. Finally, the college proscribes discrimination “in any form . . . on the grounds of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability or political affiliation.” Notably, smokers–and the obese–are missing from this long list.

A broader Internet search for “anti-smoking discrimination” yielded a few results, mostly about discrimination in the workplace. Twenty-five states specifically prohibit discrimination against employees who use tobacco products and four others, against employees who engage in any lawful activity. However, some of these statutes exempt healthcare facilities and nonprofit organizations–and of course, twenty-one states and the federal government offer no such protections. Under EEOC regulations, the protected classes are now “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”

Even the American Civil Liberties Union has a mixed record on this issue. The organization has a policy against “lifestyle discrimination,” and a tongue-in-cheek reference on its website equates smoking with “sitting in the sun, . . . having children, . . . [and] riding a motorcycle” as risky behaviors that must not be prohibited by employers. However, even the ACLU’s “legislative briefing kit” on lifestyle discrimination includes the following disclaimer: “The ACLU does not oppose smoking bans in public buildings, in the workplace, or in other locations where non-smokers may be subjected to sidestream smoke. We object only to bans on smoking (or beer or junk food) in a person’s own home.” Presumably, these self-proclaimed civil libertarians would object to banning childbearing or motorcycle riding outside the home.

As for discrimination outside the workplace, I can find nothing on the ACLU’s extensive website relating to smoking. Under the “issues” link, I readily found opposition to the following:

  • voter suppression laws;
  • punishing addiction as a crime;
  • random drug testing of welfare recipients;
  • the detention of civilians without charge or trial (i.e. at Guantanamo);
  • requirement of a national ID card;
  • censorship of controversial artworks; and
  • lifetime disenfranchisement of felons.

The ACLU is also famous (in some circles, infamous) for defending the First Amendment rights of “communists, Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, accused terrorists, pornographers, anti-LGBT activists, and flag burners.” Moreover, I enthusiastically support protections for all these groups, some of which both the ACLU and I find reprehensible. However, especially in light of the current trends towards open discrimination, shouldn’t our shared support of protections extend to those whose only offense is that they purchase and use a product completely legal for those over 18?

On the other hand, perhaps smokers should claim protected status as addicts. Or maybe they should drop their cigarette butts on the star and stripes. Then we can all join hands, sing “Kum-Ba-Yah,” and support their rights.

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