My first pack of cigarettes were Marlboro Silvers from a Couche-Tard. I bought them after spending the entire evening on the metro going from Angrignon to Honoré-Beaugrand and back because I didn’t want to be anywhere in particular. I had never seen cigarettes in stores, so I had to google “how to buy cigarettes” to find out that they were sold over the counter. Those days were the beginning of a depressive episode that was to last for many months, taking me to emotional depths of which I no longer have any memory.
Over a year later, I do not consider myself “a smoker,” although I enjoy smoking socially – I usually bum a cigarette during my drunken Friday night shenanigans, and rarely turn down a friend offering a cigarette on a study break. I go for long periods of time without smoking and it is not an addiction; rather, it’s something pleasant that I like to do to unwind, just like some people indulge in watching porn or sleeping in.
Admittedly, when I first heard about the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)’s investigation into the possibility of a smoke-free campus, I rolled my eyes. Since then, I have read more on the topic and have learned that the regulation of smoking spaces is a valid approach to an important problem, given the effect that second-hand smoke can have on some people’s respiratory conditions, allergies, and other health problems. Indeed, organizers of many events that seek to be more accessible ask attendees who have been smoking to take off their jackets before entering a space. Unfortunately, the manner in which the smoke-free campus initiative has been raised and negotiated at McGill takes a very medicalized approach centred on health and addiction, instead of one that respects the needs and autonomy both of people who smoke and people with respiratory illnesses.
Throwing the words “lung cancer” at smokers and smoker-shaming more broadly are parts of a larger culture obsessed with a particular construction of health, fitness, and cleanliness that prescribes a fixed set of “healthy” behaviours instead of putting forward a holistic view of health sensitive to individualized contexts – one that understands that health looks different to different people. This view arbitrarily pathologizes the everyday choices and behaviours of certain groups of people. How many times have we heard that smoking and smokers are “disgusting”? Undoubtedly, this is why the proposal for a smoke-free campus gains more traction than other accessibility-related proposals, such as installing ramps and elevators in inaccessible buildings on campus. I am aware that the objectives of the smoke-free campus initiatives are not to shame smokers, but this is certainly the effect that the implementation of such a project would have in practice. Introducing support for quitting has been mentioned as a solution, but not all smokers are trying to quit and the non-smoker/smoker-trying-to-quit binary is simply false.
What is at stake is two different groups’ bodily autonomy – one’s freedom to be safe from harmful chemicals and the other’s to engage in smoking.
Many people start smoking to deal with stress. Is that bad? I don’t know and I don’t care. It is not up to anyone to tell others what to do with their own bodies. People make decisions based on complex factors in their lives, and they know their conditions and their body best. To support them adequately, we need to meet them where they are. Most importantly, shaming them will not help alleviate their stress or their anxiety at all.
One of the proposed solutions is having smoking shelters. Forcing people to go to a shelter to smoke is stigmatizing and also unpleasant, because nobody, not even the degenerate smokers want to hotbox themselves in a small space full of tobacco smoke, unable to have a conversation not overheard by everyone around them. Because of this stigma, many people may also not wish to display themselves as smokers in designated public locations. They’ll have to either walk far away from campus at each study break, or just continue to feel anxious while trying to study at the library.
Measures have been taken to have a “clean” campus by the smoke-free McLennan-Redpath terrace and have already failed. People do smoke beneath the Redpath underpass, but maybe that’s because expecting smokers to stand in the dark at night and away from a shelter from the rain and wind is unreasonable. Smokers may actually be much more receptive if smoking was allowed on the terrace or in some areas of the underpass, like closer to the McLennan walls. Both of these locations are isolated enough to retain smoke-free access to the library. And if someone without a health condition is bothered by the mere proximity of a cloud of smoke, honestly, that’s too bad. I’m also regularly bothered by people who talk in class, people who ask me to watch their stuff at the library, and people who don’t hold doors open for other people, yet I’m not suggesting that these behaviours be banned.
There is also the argument that normalizing social smoking on campus is harmful because it exacerbates peer pressure to smoke. However, while I have definitely seen a few people feeling ashamed for not knowing how to smoke properly, we don’t live in the 1950s anymore and smoking isn’t really considered to be that cool. More importantly, a much more pressing issue is the rampant alcohol culture on campus. There are numerous campus bars and frequent events that focus on binge drinking – also a harmful behaviour – that are organized and promoted by SSMU and other student associations. In contrast, there are no social events where smoking is a comparable requirement for participation. There is a clear double standard here, and the emphasis on smoking is misplaced and exaggerated.
I am glad that efforts have been made to make campus more accessible to those with respiratory issues and smoke sensitivity. However, we need to keep in mind who the proposed policies will affect. Given, for example, that up to 50 per cent of queer people smoke, banning smoking on campus disproportionately affects marginalized people that resort to smoking as a way of dealing with, you know, life. However, respiratory issues also affect racialized people disproportionately – though there hasn’t been any discussion of that in the SSMU initiative. When there is no solution that can benefit everyone, we need to more carefully examine whose health and whose needs are at stake if we implement or don’t implement a smoke-free campus to reach a more reasonable solution.
What is at stake is two different groups’ bodily autonomy – one’s freedom to be safe from harmful chemicals and the other’s to engage in smoking. The burden should not fall solely on smokers to change their lifestyle. Instead of arbitrarily penalizing a group, the two should come to a mutual compromise – through the mutual recognition of each other’s autonomy and each other’s needs, not through the pathologizing of their choices.
I guess, more than anything, I think back to myself last year. I was seeing a family doctor, a psychiatrist, and a psychotherapist while on a variety of medications. At the height of my suicidal ideations last spring, smoking had become the only activity that I ever looked forward to – it gave me a sense of time in my otherwise disoriented head. I had a tendency to self-harm, and sometimes I convinced myself that smoking was enough harm. Is self-harm bad? Probably, but to someone who cuts that is irrelevant. What they need is support, love, information, and resources to do what’s best for them given the factors affecting their lives as opposed to a blaming finger. Was I smoking for the wrong reasons? Honestly that’s the least of my concerns. I survived and every god damn day of my life I’m grateful that I am still breathing, even if my lungs are not as “perfect” and “healthy” as they could be.
Paniz Khosroshahy is a U2 Women’s Studies and Computer Science student. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.