A culture up in smoke

Senior Natalie Apsell took a drag of her first cigarette in the beginning of high school, but she wouldn’t label herself a smoker until her freshman year at GW, when addiction truly kicked in.

“That’s when I was addicted physically and psychologically,” she said, recalling nights when she would gather with friends on the benches outside Thurston Hall’s lobby. Wearing pajamas, slippers and with a pack and lighter in hand, smoking became a social outlet.

Despite knowing the health risks, she said she originally started smoking because she was drawn to “the visual imagery” of exhaling and gently pushing a cloud of smoke from the mouth. She continued because of its social implications.

But today, more people are only associating smoking with cancer, emphysema and a social nuisance, and non-smokers are becoming increasingly vocal about their concerns over secondhand smoke.

GW law professor John Banzhaf said in the last few years there has been a “very, very dramatic change” in people’s behavior and attitudes toward smoking.

He said at one time, smokers would proudly sit down at a restaurant among friends or co-workers and place their pack on the table, as if to make a statement about their identity. For men, Marlboro Reds meant masculinity. For women, Virginia Slims were synonymous with sexiness and sophistication. He said many smokers now consider themselves a “social pariah.”

In 2003, about 22 percent of adults were smokers, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control. The number has dropped about three percent since 1997 and represents a steady decline in smoking since the 1960s, when nearly twice as many adults labeled themselves smokers. Today, Banzhaf said the smoking population is mainly concentrated in the lower classes and college students who use it as a stress reliever.

“It used to be a symbol of who you are,” Banzhaf said. “But now people are reluctant to light up in a social scene, even when it’s legal.”

Apsell said she too recognizes the changing attitudes toward smoking, even among smokers. She said she doesn’t think she looks like a typical female smoker: either a masculine woman or woman who looks “coked out” like a “Britney Spears or Paris Hilton-type.” So when professors or co-workers see her lighting up, she can’t help but feel embarrassed or self-conscious.

“I don’t want people I work with to see me smoke, even though some of them do too,” Apsell said. “It’s not the image I want to give off.”

Banzhaf attributes the attitude change to a combination of factors, including a greater understanding of the health hazards, advertising and legal action. Banzhaf has advocated non-smokers’ rights since the 1970s, when he and his law students filed the first complaints of smoking on airplanes.

As a result, flight attendants began sectioning smokers off in the back of planes, and people began seeing the benefits of a smoke-free environment.

Beginning with California in 1995, eight states, six countries and more than 100 cities have passed laws banning smoking from the workplace, including Boston, New York, Ireland and recently England. Smokefree D.C., an organization of Washington residents supporting a smoke-free work environment, has been pushing the City Council for the past year to sign a smoking ban that would encompass bars and restaurants.

“We believe everybody has the right to breathe clean air at work,” said Angela Bradbery, spokesperson for Smokefree D.C. She said a law in the District would be similar to the one enacted in New York last year.

But Smokefree D.C. lost two battles to pass a ban, once when the City Council refused to approve an outright ban and again in May when a District Superior Court judge ruled against allowing the Smokefree Workplace Initiative from getting on the ballot in last month’s election.

According to a May 22 article in The Washington Post, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, a trade group representing about 500 Washington establishments, sued the election board in March to keep the initiative off the ballot. They claimed a ban would hurt revenue of city businesses because people would forego smoke-free bars or restaurants, thus encroaching on the local government’s power to make city financial decisions. The ruled in favor of the restaurant association.

Bradbery said Smokefree D.C. will probably begin new initiatives next year when the newly elected Council members take office. She said she is hopeful because two new Council members sympathetic to their cause were elected in November – Kwami Brown (Ward 8) and Vincent Gray (Ward 7).

Ban the Ban, a bipartisan grassroots organization opposing a potential smoking ban, supported the restaurant association’s position that advocates choice.

“We think businesses can determine for themselves whether to ban smoking from bars and restaurants,” said Zoe Mitchell, spokesperson for Ban the Ban. She added that in the Washington metropolitan area, more than 260 bars and restaurants are already smoke-free and others restrict smoking to designated areas.

But many proponents of the smoking ban liken the right for businesses to choose whether to limit smoking in their establishment to choosing whether to obey fire codes or health safety laws. Like serving undercooked meat in a restaurant, exposure to secondhand smoke poses serious health threats. According to the American Cancer Society, foodservice workers are twice as likely as the general public to develop lung cancer due to their heavy exposure of secondhand smoke.

“Non-smoking sections don’t work – the smoke travels,” Bradbery said. “It’s more like having a smoking section and a secondhand smoking section.”

Although smokers may argue they have a right to smoke a cigarette in public, more than a dozen court cases have established that the right to smoke does not exist.

“There are lots of things people like to do … but the mere fact we like or want to do it doesn’t mean you have the right to,” said Banzhaf, adding that it is like claiming you have the right to spit tobacco or burn incense in public.

District restaurant owners and Ban the Ban supporters also fear a ban on smoking would cripple business revenues in an area where businesses already struggle to survive.

“Someone needs to stand up for the fledgling business community.” Mitchell said.

But according to Bradbery and Banzhaf, all credible studies on business revenues in areas where smoking has been outlawed have shown no adverse effects on revenue. Recent studies in New York, Texas and Arizona have shown increased revenue, increased employment in bars and restaurants and even a decrease in heart attacks.

Apsell said although she wouldn’t “love it” if a successful smoking ban was issued in Washington, she can sympathize with non-smokers. Several students, both smokers and non-smokers, said they would like to see a law passed, mostly due to the unappealing odor cigarette smoke leaves on clothes.

Senior Omer Duru said he would support a ban in restaurants but not bars. “In a restaurant, there could be a family with young kids or pregnant women there. You’re less likely to run into a pregnant woman with her kids at a bar,” he said.

According to the American Cancer Society, secondhand smoke is estimated to result in at least 38,000 annual deaths in the United States and more than one million illnesses in children, including allergies, asthma, bronchitis and heart disease.

“A ban on smoking in bars is pushing it a little too far, but at the same time, I can see the other side of the issue,” Apsell said.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.