Smokers have rights too

Joseph Farrell

Guest Contributor

Signs reading “Please give us 50 ft. of breathing room” were posted outside of Cabell Library last week, punctuated by an accompanying image of swirling ashy smoke. I found myself pausing in front of one, taken aback by what I considered to be a callous, intolerant and flat-out offensive statement.

At a university that allegedly supports socio-cultural sensitivity and competency, should we really tolerate our fellow students being addressed in such a brazen manner? Along with many other VCU students, I’m not a smoker, but we should practice using empathy and put ourselves in the smoker’s shoes.

How would it feel reading this message from your school? Would you feel the urge to toss your VCU hat in the adjacent trashcan?

I certainly would. I’d rather not be spoken to rudely.

The smoking culture, while certainly less robust than it has been in prior generations, is likely best represented demographically at colleges and universities. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, 33 percent of all college students in the U.S. use tobacco products.

But whatever number of VCU students that consider themselves smokers is irrelevant; the fact is they’re people too. At VCU, we respect minority groups. We try to show respect to all students from all walks of life.

VCU is host to more than 1,000 international students, many of whom are from nations where smoking is far less taboo and is, frankly, a way of life. How might these students feel when encountering signs such as this at our school? Is this the way students should be addressed by the University?: “We respect your culture and ability to choose how you live your life, but we at Virginia Commonwealth University frown upon smoking and those who smoke, which you’ll surely pick up on as you stroll through our campus and encounter our derisive messages about your lifestyle choices”?

It’s no secret that the social acceptability of smoking has decreased markedly over the past 50 years, mostly due to the prevalence of scientific studies finding causal links between smoking and various maladies. I do understand why the university feels compelled to spread information about the health risks of smoking, of how second hand smoke impacts others and to inform students of laws regarding where smoking is or is not permitted.

I do not, however, condone the use of snarky, patronizing language in doing so. What’s the point? To shame or ridicule smokers? Should smokers feel shameful? Is this practice of subversively imposing one’s values onto another not a form of ethnocentrism?

Let’s look at the message content itself.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. From the perspective of a smoker, I would want to know who this “us” is that I’m allegedly stealing breathing room from. Should I understand “us” as VCU? That seems logical.

Taking this a step further, am I to deduce that I’m not one of “us?” That’s a shame. I thought my admission and $20,000-per-year tuition qualified me to be part of the community. Apparently not, as my lifestyle choice warrants exclusion. What about the rest, the “Please allow us 50 ft. of breathing room” part?  So your breathing room is being taken by me and you’re asking me politely to give it back? The tone and manner of the request oozes with sarcasm.

Speaking as a man who is a friend, brother and son of smokers, I find this communication style to be passive-aggressive degradation. Reminding students to respect the law regarding where to (and not to) smoke is one thing, but let’s remain respectful and do so without the derisive language.

We’re all adults here; let’s act like it.

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