A Nasty Tradition

Inspector Artsy

Last week The Crimson ran a story that must have plunged a certain subset of the artsy elite into a tailspin. The article detailed potential plans to implement a university-wide smoking ban that would prohibit smoking on any part of Harvard’s campus. Difficulty of enforcement aside, one cannot help but feel that this policy deliberately targets a certain type of Harvard student for whom the decision to smoke is—much like wearing thick-framed glasses—a fundamental expression of artsiness. To be a young smoker in this day and age, and in this country, is no easy feat. In fact, being a smoker at Harvard is already well nigh impossible; the smoking table that used to serve as a perch for smokers of Kirkland and Eliot Houses is no more, and smoking is not allowed in the immediate vicinity of the houses, so smokers have to stand in the street in ignominy, puffing away under the disapproving eyes of passersby.

It was not always thus. As recently as the late eighties, there was a separate smoking room in the Freshman Union, the predecessor to Annenberg. Can you imagine? An annex of the freshman dining hall only for smokers? You must be joking, you say dismissively. But I am not joking. I am merely relating historical fact. We are students in a health-conscious age in which students are more likely to unroll a yoga mat than to roll a cigarette. “Smoking is a disgusting habit,” said one student who asked to remain anonymous. “Harvard students should know better.” And so they do. Most smokers in the world, not to mention smokers at Harvard, are aware of the seriously detrimental effects of the habit. So, to smoke in college, I would argue, is a decision to disregard the prudent advice of parents, doctors, and friends and to take some sort of social stand.

This is an oversimplification, of course. Harvard students smoke for a number of reasons. Some students I spoke to adopted the habit from their parents. Others picked it up while studying abroad in Europe, where the vice is so much more common and really not considered a vice, after all. The “artsy,” so often the target of this column, smoke because they associate the behaviour with the kinds of people they aspire to be—intellectuals, actors, painters, and the like.

Condemning the habit is easy but lays one open to hypocrisy. The student quoted above supports the plan to make Harvard’s campus smoke free. She is a resident of Kirkland House, and her ground-floor window opens onto the single sliver of pavement that Kirkland smokers now use in the absence of the aforementioned table. She asked for anonymity, however, because she confided that those smokers outside her window are her friends, and she does not want to offend them. Her respect for their feelings is touching, but it does not seem to influence her support of a policy that would make it impossible for them to smoke.

I am against the smoke-free Harvard policy, not because I think smoking is cool, but rather because I think the policy is profoundly inconsistent and even hypocritical. Smoking used to be an integral part of being at college and even to being a Harvard student. The Freshman Union’s smoking room is a testament to that fact. Moreover, the ongoing archaeological dig in the Yard has unearthed countless antique tobacco pipe stems. Even when it was officially banned from campus during Harvard’s Puritan era, smoking was still a common habit among students. Perhaps those among us who choose to light up are simply upholding a centuries-old tradition.

Drinking has always been an integral part of being a college student, and yet the University seems to have no problem with this activity—its amnesty policy demonstrates an institutional acknowledgment that students are prone to drink—actually, to drink quite a lot. Drinking to excess is arguably as harmful to one’s health as smoking. And yet, while the college does try to prevent underage drinking, its alcohol policy is relatively lenient. Can you imagine if Harvard announced plans to become an alcohol-free campus? There would be outrage, uproar, and chaos. Just as drinking defines many Harvard students’ social interactions, so smoking, too, is important to some students’ self-identification. Yes, it’s bad for you. But drinking isn’t great either. People still do it, and trying to change that is as futile as trying to light a cigarette in a strong headwind.

—Columnist Anjali R. Itzkowitz can be reached at aitzkow@college.harvard.edu.

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