I was unsurprised when the high-minded administrators of Exeter College decided to play mother this week, and propose a smoking ban for the alleged good of their students. And I was disappointed at the slightly damp rejoinders offered by the college’s tobacco-loving students.
Smoking was described by opponents of the ban as “symptomatic of the working class”, another one of those crass but fashionable statements which assume everybody in an economic group thinks and acts the same. But whether these arguments hold up to scrutiny or not is beside the point. Individual smokers have their own motivations, which shouldn’t require justification to the authorities of their university.
I didn’t start smoking because I grew up without much money, but because I like tobacco. I like the rush of nicotine to the blood. I like the peace of sitting in the quad, undisturbed, without the need for a social excuse. I like the opportunity to retreat from the boredom of an office, or a library, or an argument in the kitchen. And I like smokers. It’s a young person’s hobby, and a particular type of young person at that. Cigarettes might not be good for you, but they’re definitely good to you. Smoking is the proclivity of someone who, exceptionally at this University, isn’t planning to settle down in a Surrey semi-detached with a wife and two kids. It’s the pastime of someone who doesn’t actually believe they’re so brilliant that they should live forever.
If there’s one thing that really puts us off quitting, it’s the insufferable piety of the smoke-free. I’m sure all smokers reading this have heard it: “smoking kills, you know!” Yes, of course we know, it says it on the front of the packet. These encounters aren’t even the worst. It’s the melodramatic coughers, and splutterers who really grate on me. Their spiteful idea, that we should be stripped of our ciggies because they don’t like the smell, was also the motivation of Exeter’s proposed ban. The exact phrasing was “inconsiderate behaviour”. But smokers are, in my experience, considerate. We have moved out of restaurants, bars, and pubs, and onto the street. And smokers, seeing a child or an elderly person coming their way, turn their cigarettes away to spare discomfort.
But this is not enough for the deans of Exeter College and Oxford University at large, who continue to believe that we need them to enforce good politesse. They are mistaken. All we need is for them to leave us alone.