I should start this post by declaring that I have never been a smoker. When in my youth all around me were smoking, I somehow avoided it. I tried it of course, it just didn’t do anything for me.
It is increasingly hard to remind ourselves how all-pervasive smoking once was. In my late teens in the cinema I could hardly ever see the screen, the smoke was so overpowering. In my local butcher’s shop in provincial Ireland the meat was routinely carved and arranged by the butcher with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and, occasionally, ash falling on the food. More alarmingly, the local petrol pump attendant filled up your tank while puffing on a Rothmans King Size.
When I started my academic career, smoking was also all around me. Lecturers regularly smoked in their offices, and with their office doors open the smoke would blow down the corridors. So when I first became a Head of Department, I was presented with a problem. A student came to me to complain about one of my colleagues who insisted on smoking during tutorials. The student suffered from asthma, and when she complained, the lecturer suggested she sit by the window, which he then opened. In January. He continued smoking. It was not an easy situation to resolve.
Some 25 years later it is all very different, and some universities have now banned smoking from their campuses altogether, indoors and outdoors. Last month, one American pressure group declared that in the United States 1,159 campuses now permit no smoking at all. In the US and elsewhere, those universities that do still allow smoking tend to restrict it to areas well away from buildings and regular pathways (see the smoking policy of Warwick University, or that of Exeter University, or that of Glasgow University).
In my own university our smoking policy has recently come up for consideration, with the question being asked in particular whether we should also ban it outright. In considering this, I have wondered whether we would do so as a way of protecting non-smokers and the general public, and perhaps of bringing to an end the unpleasant littering of certain areas with cigarette butts; or whether we would be seeking to persuade, maybe even compel, smokers to desist from the habit for the good of their own health.
Of course smoking is not quite the same as other forms of potential self-harm such as over-eating. Bystanders are affected by smokers, with potential risks to their health. But then again, that may be true, if in different ways, of other bad habits such as alcohol abuse: should drinking also be banned? Is there an appropriate dimension in this issue for liberal, or maybe libertarian, principles?
This non-smoker would be quite happy if the practice died out completely. But even so, I am not wholly sure that while cigarettes and tobacco are legal that it is our mission to stop people from using them. In short, I am not sure what the correct approach should be.