The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 75.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

Smoking should only be permitted in private

The Institute Policy on Smoking, announced in the Nov. 6 issue of Tech Talk, is very welcome, long overdue -- and I think, inadequate.

When the announcement appeared, I posted copies of it in the corridors near my office, with a caption requesting people not to smoke in these areas. People reacted in several different ways; there was a debate about taping notices to the walls, which I hadn't anticipated. But the most important response is that six co-workers in my area came to thank me for rescuing them from the smoke that they'd suffered in silence for many months. Other people who work in other areas of the building came to ask if I would put up posters in their areas also.

The point I am trying to make is that many people who are offended by tobacco smoke, and even allergic to it, are also offended by the need to make a fuss in order to protect their rights. Many choose suffering from slow poison as the lesser evil. After all, it takes a certain thick-skinned willingness to be rude to be able to walk up to a colleague and tell him that he stinks.

The effect of the "reasonable accomodation" rule is that the matter must be addressed in precisely those terms, rather than as a blanket policy. The nonsmoker is caught up in extremely uncomfortable discussions about exactly to what extent each smoker in the building stinks. Perhaps one person smokes only occasionally and can do it in some private area, while another smokes so much that his body, breath, and clothes stink even when he is not smoking. If you find repeated use of the word "stink" here offensive, you will understand the point I'm trying to make: that it is not easy for a nonsmoker to defend himself without embarrassment.

Of course, the situation is even more difficult when the suffering nonsmoker is a secretary and the smoker is a professor or a department head. I am not a secretary, but some of the people who thanked me for rescuing them are secretaries. (Although I am not a secretary, I do have the misfortune to be a low-ranking academic working in a building named after a highly respected scientist who wanders through the building smoking a pipe. He's twice my age, and I feel rather awkward about having to tell him that he stinks. I respect him myself, which makes it that much harder.)

Another very important weakness of the announced policy is that it makes no effort to protect the rights of nonsmoking students. The policy explicitly addresses "the rights of [MIT's] employees" and would be relatively adequate in an ordinary office environment.

At a university, though, there is really no such thing as a private office. If a student needs to confer with an instructor about some aspect of a course, and the instructor smokes, the announced policy proposes three obstacles for the student. First, it's always hard for a student to ask a professor for any kind of consideration. The professor is doing you a favor by seeing you at all, and he holds the power of the grade over you. Second, the stated policy offers the student no support in dealing with the professor if he does ask. And third, even if the student asks and the professor stops smoking, it's too late. Walking into an office in which someone has just been smoking is like walking into a room which has just been tear-gassed. It's not quite as bad as being there when the tear gas bomb goes off, but it's not that pleasant either.

Here is what I think is required to have a policy that will be fair to smokers as well as nonsmokers. First, the policy must explicitly address the rights of all members of the MIT community, not just employees. Second, the policy must recognize that every area in which work is done is a public area; the concept of a limited "work area" in the existing policy makes sense in an insurance office where each person spends all day at his or her own desk, but not in an academic setting. Third, every work area must be a nonsmoking area by default; it should take the explicit and unanimous agreement of all the people who pass through the area before smoking can be permitted there. Fourth, to address the needs of smokers, special areas that are NOT work areas should be set aside for smoking lounges. These areas must not be the only lounges in a building; nonsmokers must be able to eat and talk with colleagues too. Fifth, to address the REAL needs of smokers, MIT policy should provide the means and the financial incentive for them to undertake detoxification programs through the MIT Medical Department.

Here's the bottom line: if an MIT employee were to urinate on the floor of a public area, nobody would suggest that the other people who work in that area be required to bear the burden of negotiating about it. And yet tobacco smoke is both more offensive in smell and more of a health hazard than urine. People who must smoke should do so in private.

Brian Harvey '69->

Lecturer in Media Arts and Sciences->