An administrator#039;s stand against smoking students

by Beacon Staff • December 10, 2008

I was more than intrigued with iThe Beacon/i's editorial response to the Gypsy Bar ("Get off our backs (and block), Gypsy" Dec. 4). The Gypsy bar's concerns about the aggregate of Emerson College smokers should have prompted an editorial opportunity from iThe Beacon/i. Although I did not disagree with the comments regarding the bar's disregard for "unruly Gypsy folk," the more critical point of this event relates to Emerson students smoking in front of the establishment.

Here's what I know and I'll be alarmingly candid:

I don't smoke. But the consequences of smoking have been in my life for decades. My grandfather died at 52 from smoking. My dad died at 60 from smoking. Both of my sisters smoke and one has developed a worrisome cough. And, despite warnings since the 1960s from the U.S. Surgeon General, the American Cancer Society reports that prevalence of smoking in this country is highest among college-age students, 18-24. As a college instructor, this concerns me greatly.

With this backdrop, I remain perplexed why, with all the evidence pointing in one direction, scores of Emerson students continue to smoke. We are fortunate to have some of the brightest young minds in the country. In fact, I left a 17-year position in Maine with a home on the ocean to come to this outstanding institution because I wanted to be surrounded by this excellence. Emerson's intellectual and creative climate, however, does not mean we have any "smarts" regarding smoking. Interestingly and regrettably, the "Alcohol and Other Drug Policy" on page 22 of the 2008-2009 Undergraduate Catalog does not identify a cigarette as a drug. By any lay or scientific interpretation, cigarettes are addictive, habit-forming and have no redeeming health value. Indeed, cigarettes are drugs.

The battle over what constitutes a drug, however, is a battle over which I have no control.

What I do have control over is my own personal "campaign" to ask why there is such disrespect by so many cigarette-smokers on campus. As someone who attends meetings in both Ansin and Little many times a week, and whose office is in Walker, I am constantly fighting my way through the smoke billowing in front of the buildings. Further, although there is clear signage in front of the Little Building that prohibits smoking under the arch, students flagrantly violate this policy. When I politely asked one student to move away from the arch a few weeks ago, she actually asked me whether her smoking was worse than the Iraq war.

I have spoken to Dean of Students Ronald Ludman about this policy violation and was informed that the logistics of enforcement are difficult in an urban campus such as ours. I am appreciative of Chief George Noonan's e-mail response to me that indicated he has "ordered all officers to be more aggressive and proactive" in ensuring that the policy in front of the Little Building is enforced. Indeed, there is evidence that moving smokers and simultaneously respecting campus policy can work. For instance, I see no smoking in front of Piano Row. The policy in the Student Handbook states that "smoking is prohibited within 25 feet of 150 Boylston Street." I don't understand why this portion of the policy is enforced and respected while the remaining portion of the policy is not:

"Smoking is prohibited within the archway area outside the 80 Boylston St. entranceway during posted hours (7 a.m. - 11 p.m.). If you choose to smoke near the Little Building during posted hours, please use the side entrance at 211 Tremont St. In a similar spirit, the College asks smokers to refrain from congregating in front of other building entrances so that people do not have to pass through second-hand smoke."

I'm particularly fascinated by the college's deference to smokers, as it politely "asks" them to refrain. By asking, we exhibit a kindness that many smokers refuse to reciprocate.

Look, I'm a realist. I get that we can't chase smokers across the street and risk their safety. But how safe is it to stand in front of buildings puffing away on a cigarette that cuts an average of 12 minutes off the life of the smoker? And how safe is it for me and other passersby to inhale this smoke every day? Certainly, it is not safe for those of us who choose to walk along Boylston Street because cigarette smoke clouds the entrances to the Walker Building, the Gypsy Bar, the Colonial Building (don't forget the non-Emerson construction workers) and the Little Building.

So, that realist in me prompts the following message to the insensitive and insolent cigarette smokers on campus. Of course, I'm not speaking to those who "get it" and act as respectful as possible. But, for the others:

Move your "ashes" away from the front door of the building! All buildings, please. I am no longer tolerant of your desire to pollute the atmosphere and violate my right to fresh air. I am also no longer tolerant of having my jackets or suits burned by nicotine-laden coffin nails.

I refuse to concede my right to healthy lungs and a smokeless atmosphere just so your right to smoke can be sustained. Yes, you have a right. But all rights come with boundaries. Further, the respect that I (and many others) seek should be coupled with a respect for the environment.

It amazes me when the same students who define themselves as "environmentally conscious" think nothing of tossing a discarded cigarette on the sidewalk.

I write to beg (yes, it has come down to this) smokers in front of the Little Building and Walker to move your "butts" away from the entrances. I understand you are entitled to a convenient cigarette break and some of you smoke because it "relaxes" you (of course, so does a massage and yet it won't kill you). Maybe moving a few steps away from building entrances would help ease the tensions between smokers and nonsmokers. Or, if you're so inclined, you may even try to stop smoking.

Although the semester is at an end, I hope this plea will be considered and honored once the new semester begins. If not, then I encourage others on campus to join me and express a right to clean air, unfettered (and filtered) access to campus buildings and a safe route to classes and meetings. While some may wish for a frigid winter-perhaps resulting in a decrease in smoking frequency-I'm wishing for a respectful distance. We may be bringing "innovation" to communication and the arts, but we have lost our creativity in figuring out ways to circumvent some of the toxic nicotine-arrogance around here.

iDr. Richard West is a professor in and the chair of the Department of Communication Studies./i,Dr. Richard West