Smoking enemies all huff and puff (Guest column)

Scott Gordon

ORLANDO, Fla. — In old movies, you could smoke anywhere and at any time. It is strangely fascinating now to watch film actors having a drag in expensive restaurants, immediately after showering, in the police station, in stuffy meetings, in the emergency room, at a niece’s First Communion.

The smoke was simply there, and there really wasn’t much need to fuss about it. But some people had to start responding, and in the process became wimpy and excessively scrupulous. Another little bit of the fun in life is going away, not because the smoking is going away, but because the push against smoking requires us to be nitpicky and pathetic.

This summer, Evanston City Council passed a ban on smoking in apartment building hallways and a de facto ban on smoking on city sidewalks. This is the point where we know people are trying too hard to perfect the world. The first and most important thing that bugs people about being around smokers exposes them to coarse smells and makes their eyes itch. But it can never be as simple as that.

Look at the words used by a Northwestern student quoted in The Daily last week: "Students who live in university housing should not have to endure the hazardous effects of second-hand smoke from outside their windows." That is one long, circuitous sentence, and all it means is, "I don’t like smoke, and it’s bad for me." Lots of words for a simple idea taken too seriously can turn you into a ridiculous zealot.

I personally am not bothered by smoke. But where is my recourse against the activities that irritate me? Can I ask the city to take action against those people who proselytize at the corner of Church Street and Maple Avenue on the weekends? I don’t care to endure the hazardous effects of secondhand prayer.

Anti-smoking advocacy, like many kinds of activism or advocacy, breeds a humorless, narrow view of the world. Just look at, say, the American Lung Association-affiliated Web site Here come the real unfortunates, the crazed mongrel babies of this movement. On this site, the presence of smoking becomes the sole standard of the merit of current films. Incidents of smoking and the spirit in which they’re presented are mathematically tabulated. A little counter on the site tells me that in the 10 minutes I’ve been looking at it, 36 kids have become addicted from seeing tobacco in movies. It’s a bit of a fib, a factual stretch, and that’s what you get from people hell-bent on keeping an issue alive and tilted in their own favor.

Any number of things involve risk, but for the most part we try to enjoy them, don’t we? We’ve focused on smoking because the problems it causes are visible, while the risks of a million other things are rather subtle. Some take comfort in smoking, which has its false promises, disadvantages and silly icons. The same can be said for religion, watching television, sports, shopping, hard work, playing outside, having sex, socializing, raising children, eating, using electronic appliances, participating in politics, driving, exercising, writing, reading.

Learn to appreciate a little disorder. Accept that certain unpleasant things are in the mix. There is so much emphasis on taking certain elements outt hat many of us become soft, judgmental, inhibited and easily frightened. We’ve failed in our own way to overcome what has plagued every generation before us every perceived danger or nuisance is a violation of our rights and has to be answered with legislation, lawsuits and an obtuse, important-sounding vocabulary. But in most cases, the offended meets the offender halfway, both too convinced of the importance of his own values.


Former Deputy City Editor Scott Gordon, a Medill junior, is on his Teaching Media internship at The Orlando Sentinel. He can be reached at [email protected].