“You smoke cigarettes?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “So?”
Wait. I started the story all wrong. For you to really understand this exchange between this girl—a first-year who shall remain nameless—and myself, also a first-semester freshman at the time, I need to specify her tone, perhaps with a bit more description and the help of italics. Let’s start again:
“You smoke cigarettes?” she asked, her eyes narrowing on mine with a faint air of discomfort.
“Yeah…” I replied hesitantly. “So?”
“Oh, nothing. Just asking,” she muttered, turning away from my gaze.
But nothing about her fleeting response gave me the sense that she felt indifferent about the fact that I smoked cigarettes. Between the way she raised her eyebrows—like a concerned mother whose child just got sent home from school—and the barely concealed expression of mild disgust on her face, she gave herself away. She crunched through the word “cigarette” with disdain, and suddenly, the question sounded less like, “you smoke cigarettes?” and more like, “you support Communism?” Her condescension whisked me back to the cesspool of self-consciousness I call “junior high,” as if the most popular girl in school had just reduced me to rubble with the question, “you play magic cards?” Needless to say, I felt like a tourist who just walked into a crowded record store in Williamsburg to purchase the latest Nickelback album—in other words, seriously looked down upon.
I have no intention of drawing any further comparisons between cigarette smoking, Nickelback, Communism, and middle-school social dynamics. Yet the point stands: it only took a matter of days after arriving at the Claremont Colleges for me to feel judged. It only took a matter of days after arriving at the Claremont Colleges for someone who I barely knew to form an opinion of me, an opinion based not on any aspect of my personality, but instead based on one of my habits.
Now, as a smoker, I know that discussing the issue of smoking at the Claremont Colleges carries with it some implications. I certainly don’t intend to glorify cigarette smoking, especially in this day and age—I’m not Don Draper. Enough scientific evidence proves that second-hand smoke poses considerable health risks, and we are all well aware by now of the indisputably harmful effects of direct smoking. But, given the widespread availability of such information, especially to college kids, the fact that students still choose to smoke cigarettes opens up new ways of thinking about smoking as a “problem.” It also opens up new ways of thinking about a holier-than-thou attitude that many smokers at the Claremont Colleges occasionally contend with.
Last semester, in an effort to qualify for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the administration decided to ban smoking in Pomona College’s only smoking dormitory, Lawry Court, citing public health as an additional consideration. A year ago, the ASPC Coop Committee discussed banning the sale of cigarettes at the Coop Store in response to declining sales. In general, it seems that smokers—at least habitual smokers—comprise a small minority of students at the Claremont Colleges. I want to know why.
Why, after only half a day’s drive to a student co-op at UC Berkeley, do I find myself surrounded by kids proudly puffing Parliaments? After all, it’s not like smokers walk around Claremont hearing taunts like “tar lung!” or “cancer breath!” Yet some of us continue to lurk between buildings, frustratingly cognizant of maintaining 25 feet of distance from the nearest wall to lean on. At the sight of any passerby we rear into the shadows like the denizens of a Baltimore drug corner at the sight of cops. We return from our mid-Pub cigarette breaks to greet a crowd that welcomes us with the warmth typically reserved for polite skinheads.
All playful exaggeration aside, I still feel apprehensive right now about broadcasting the fact that I smoke cigarettes to the student body. Selfishly and self-consciously, I wonder why I keep asking myself if, knowing that I deliberately fill my lungs with carcinogens, anyone reading this already thinks of me differently. These thoughts circulate through my head for a reason: a certain stigma.
What characterizes the stigma associated with cigarette smoking at the 5Cs? Of all the different powders, pills, and potions with which kids here poison their bodies for kicks, what specifically makes cigarettes so abhorrent to certain non-smokers? Our student body seems to glorify those pupil-dilated adventurers who waltz into Harwood Halloween rolling from head to toe, and yet the moment a filter touches their lips, their costume morphs from leprechaun to leper.
I know I am unfairly characterizing non-smokers as judgmental and obnoxiously self-righteous. I know that assuming the opinions of a majority of students at the Claremont Colleges detracts from an objective discussion of the issue. In fact, throughout my own experiences as a smoker here, most non-smokers have treated me with respect and free of judgment. I suppose the resentment I bear toward the few that lectured me from their pedestals of exemplary well-being—as if I spent years skipping health class in school and am somehow unable to read public service announcements—makes it difficult to speak objectively.
In that regard, I decided to pose a survey to the student body, asking questions ranging from why people choose to smoke, why others hate it, and whether or not drunkenness influenced the frequency of cigarettes smoked. Originally, several students agreed to meet with me to go on the record about their opinions and experiences as both smokers and non-smokers. Most of those students have since either chosen to back out of any interviews whatsoever, or to remain anonymous. Clearly, cigarette smoking at the Claremont Colleges presents more of an issue than it seemed.
Fifty-one percent of those surveyed admitted to having tried at least one cigarette in their lives, although a staggering 81 percent then clarified that they did not smoke regularly. According to the subsequent question, which asked respondents to characterize their cigarette smoking, more than 50 percent of respondents said they only smoked up to ten cigarettes a year. The remaining responses panned out fairly evenly, although the next highest percentage—14 percent—belonged to those who claimed to only smoke when intoxicated.
I asked smokers how they felt treated by their peers at the Claremont Colleges when it came to smoking cigarettes publicly or talking about smoking cigarettes. At over 60 percent, a majority of respondents said they felt treated equally, but over 25 percent claimed to feel treated with disrespect. Many responses to the question explained that the way smokers are treated depends on the circumstances. “Chain smokers are treated with disrespect,” wrote one person. “I would say that I only ever smoke with other smokers, so I don’t feel judged,” another noted. “But when people know that I occasionally smoke, they absolutely judge me and treat me with disrespect.”
I went on to ask if smokers felt ashamed to smoke at the Claremont Colleges, to which about 50 percent replied no. One respondent confessed to feeling ashamed, but not because of the cigarette culture at the 5Cs. “The shame stems from the fact that it’s a dirty habit that I don’t want to continue,” one person admitted.
When I asked why smokers chose to smoke cigarettes, drunkenness and relaxation stood out as the two most common reasons cited by respondents at 75 percent and 50 percent respectively. For some, the taste of cigarettes and looking “cool” also contributed to why respondents smoked.
“[It’s] a sort of grand ‘f–k you,’” one person wrote, defiantly. “Smoking, especially at the 5Cs, where almost everyone is laboring to present this picture perfect image of happy, fit, college co-eds, sends the message that you don’t care what other people think about your actions, you might not be happy, and being fit isn’t the end all be all.” The person did go on to admit, however, “I think I’ll be happier and more fit if I stop smoking cigarettes.”
Fifty percent of non-smokers said that cigarette smoking always bothered them, while another 30 percent said that it only sometimes bothered them. “I do think people who smoke need to be more considerate of those around them,” wrote one respondent. “Standing two feet from the door to my residence hall is not an appropriate place to smoke.”
Almost 60 percent admitted that the fact that someone smoked cigarettes negatively affected their opinion of that person.
“It doesn’t affect my opinion of them as a person, I just wouldn’t want to be around them as much if they smoked a lot,” one respondent explained. At the same time, 80 percent of non-smokers thought that smoking was not a problem at the 5Cs.
Interestingly enough, several respondents felt that it was not cigarette smoking, but the stigma against cigarette smoking that defined the “problem.”
“People are very self-righteous and should be more respectful of people’s decisions,” someone wrote. Another noted, “at this point each person is just as educated about the consequences as the next. It is a personal choice, and while some people are irritated by the smoke, others are just elitist dicks who need to chill out.”
The evidence from the survey proves very little. Non-smokers understandably complain about smoking at the 5Cs because of the detrimental effects of second-hand smoke. I hoped at least one non-smoker who took the survey might reveal themselves as one of those “elitist dicks” by whom many smokers at the Colleges feel stigmatized.
If anything, the survey stands testament to 5C students’ love affair with the limitless joys of smoking under the influence, and not much else. Those of us who make a habit of smoking on occasions other than drunken revelry definitely stand out as a considerable minority. We never need to defend our choice in lifestyle to those sanctimonious few that choose to judge us for it. But, our responsibility to the world of non-smokers around us is simply a matter of consideration: maybe the prospects of rotting our teeth, polluting our breath, odorizing our clothes, increasing our chances of infertility, contracting lung cancer, and shortening our lives by up to seventeen years make smoking cigarettes worth the taste and the benefits of relaxing and aspiring to appear as self-assured as Humphrey Bogart, but not everyone shares those feelings.
However, perhaps in those moments of drunken revelry, while remaining respectful to the air we collectively breathe and finding compassion for those whose habits we disagree with, smokers and non-smokers alike can find common ground.