Waiting to inhale: Smoking at Berkeley

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff


So a seemingly infinite number of banners across the UC Berkeley campus commands, in clean, modern lettering. A symbol of a deadly cigarette is struck out against a backdrop of blue and gold — the color scheme reminding the onlooker that the banner’s effort ought to be a community one. The message is plain: There is nowhere on this campus where you are permitted to smoke or consume any other kind of tobacco product.

UC Berkeley’s tobacco-free policy went into effect Jan. 1, 2014, after the UC Office of the President challenged all the UC campuses to go smoke-free. Smoking on campus — and in general — undeniably presents a public health issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco is the largest cause of preventable death in the United States. The U.S. surgeon general maintains that there is “no safe level” of secondhand smoke. Accordingly, UC Berkeley outlawed tobacco use on all university-owned property and offered to help smokers attempt quitting, including providing two weeks of nicotine replacement therapy free through University Health Services.

Most students appear to respect the policy. Seeing someone smoke a cigarette on campus during the day is extremely rare. Living in the Unit 2 residence hall in 2014, even I — a night owl with a smoker’s nose for the smell of cigarettes — probably spotted someone violating the prohibition against smoking in the courtyard two or three times all year, and only at late hours when no one was likely to pass through and glare at the offender.

“I agree with the policy. I think it’s really important to keep campus itself tobacco-free, because most of the people on it are tobacco-free,” said Zahra Chithiwala, a nonsmoking junior majoring in public health. “Moreover, being in a place where you don’t see (people smoking) all the time, I think, makes others less likely to start smoking.”

The policy additionally prohibits “the sale and advertising of tobacco products on campus-owned or leased property.” This is ironic, considering that Coors Light declared itself the “proud partner” of Cal Athletics on a billboard in the same year that the tobacco-free policy was implemented. (Alcohol, like tobacco, is one of the three leading causes of preventable death in the United States.)

Notwithstanding, the tobacco-free policy is inarguably well-intentioned, but nonetheless presents a difficult terrain for students who are smokers. To pose an unpopular question: What sort of effect does the suppression of smoking have on those who want to — or must — indulge the habit, despite how negatively it is looked upon?


One sunny fall Monday about noon, campus junior Matt Owen stands enjoying a cigarette at what it is arguably the favorite haunt of UC Berkeley student smokers: the bus stop at Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way, just off Sproul Plaza. This cramped little rectangle is technically university property — not to mention right next to the best-known, most prominent entrance to campus — but the corner generally seems to be accepted as fair ground for smoking.  

“I do feel (the policy) is fair, since the majority of the students here don’t smoke and don’t want to deal with secondhand smoke,” Owen said. “Smoking off campus is doable, but it gets rough as someone who smokes a pack a day. I feel that they should at least have a designated smoking section on campus.”

A few days later, senior Emily Munz stands smoking in almost the exact same spot as Owen. She shared almost the exact same sentiment. “I think it’s cool that the campus is cleaner. I think it’s nice that the smoke isn’t rising up into windows and bothering people who are in class,” she said. “I think that’s positive, but I do wish there was a smoking section on campus.”

In the United States, the cigarette has come a long way from the harmless, glamorous accessory of iconic characters such as James Bond, Holly Golightly and Rick Blaine. The widespread revelation of smoking as dangerous to one’s health in the 1960s launched various public health initiatives to suppress the prevalence of the addiction. Today, the stigma surrounding smoking has become pervasive. In November 2014, a Buzzfeed poll asked visitors whether they would date a smoker — 67 percent responded no. Our president, himself a former smoker, praised CVS’ decision to stop selling cigarettes in October 2014 as a “powerful example.” By the early 2000s, states were increasingly forced to enact smoker protection laws — statutes that bar employers from discriminating against employees for being smokers in order to prevent discrimination against such citizens in the workforce. Even California was forced to implement such laws to protect smokers, despite being a progressive state that normally champions anti-smoking policies.

The city of Berkeley is itself an example of extreme anti-smoking partisanship in California, especially in recent years. As of May 2014, smoking became illegal in 100 percent of multiunit housing (which includes apartment buildings, condos, and, technically, fraternity houses and co-ops), even in outdoor areas such as balconies and decks. Considering that the city has banned smoking in commercial zones, within 25 feet of any public building and in parks since 2008 (this map neatly summarizes the jurisdiction of the campus and the city’s most sweeping bans), there is often no place for tobacco users in this city.

This is not to suggest that the city’s ordinances are respected as much as the campus’s are; unlike the courtyard of my freshman residence hall, Berkeley’s busiest streets seem to be dotted frequently enough with people lighting up. But while the law may not be actually obeyed, the social stigma it helps create nevertheless remains.

I smoke; in doing so, I am consciously deciding to inflict the vast amount of physical damage done by such a habit on my body because — because, well, I like it. I like smoking the way that some people love caffeine, sugar or beer — which, like cigarettes, are psychoactive,  potentially health-damaging drugs. But is it my right to choose to smoke without being ostracized for it? More complicated still, what if it is in fact not a choice, but a now-involuntary compulsion? Famous research has indicated that cigarettes may be harder to quit than heroin; if it is extremely physiologically difficult for me to not smoke, is it nevertheless my responsibility to suffer a certain amount of glaring, yelling and shuffling long distances to secluded areas as retribution for having decided to start smoking in the first place?

The public health movement against tobacco raises a difficult question about civil liberties and when and how we relinquish them. Smokers would and do argue that they are at liberty to indulge a habit they enjoy and should not be forced to endure constant inconvenience, fines or social retribution for it.  Picking one’s poison, after all, should not void the human respect they are owed by people without the same proclivities. Conversely, though, secondhand smoke presents a public health problem that cannot be ignored; nonsmokers insist that they should be free to live without suffering the detriment of another person’s choice — and they’re right. Alas, the debate continues.

At our campus, at least, smokers seem willing to compromise. “(A smoking section) could be away from buildings and not be disruptive to any classes,” Munz said. “And it could be easily cleaned! Whereas the burden of these butts” — she glances at the innumerable remains of cigarettes littering the ground at the Sproul bus stop — “is getting put on the city.”

Though none are as conspicuous as the little alcove by Sproul Plaza, popular spots such as this one are recognizable all along the fringes of campus property even when no one stands at them. The unfortunate concentration of butts left behind serve as a kind of inadvertent signal to other smokers: “Here is safe territory.” There’s the shady concrete corner opposite the big crosswalk across Hearst Avenue at North Gate, the sunlit safety of a similar nook by Kroeber Fountain, the round stone benches just off campus behind Tolman Hall, and the benches that flank the entrance of the Units on College Avenue — and really any other minimally populated, secluded corner that might afford one a cigarette free of guilt. These corners are little sanctuaries for the student smoker, common areas in which the subcommunity congregates, commiserates and together experiences the physical alienation from the campus that being a smoker necessarily precipitates.

Perhaps that alienation isn’t necessary. The desire for at least one authorized smoking area at some sequestered corner of campus that Munz and Owen expressed was echoed by almost every student smoker I spoke to. Unfortunately, many of my interviewees declined to be quoted, citing fear of a potential employer performing a Google search of their name and discovering them — Heaven forbid! — as a smoker.

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