The rights of office products

Spending time recently in Paris, where smoking isn’t nearly as taboo as it is here, got me reminiscing back to when the “smoking wars” in New York had not yet been so decisively won by the non-smokers.

Today, of course, it would be unthinkable for a Manhattanite to light up a cigarette in the work place. Alarms would go off, authorities would be called, the perpetrator would be held up for public shaming.

In Paris they have similar rules, but the emotions around those rules are not so intense. Workers there must also go outside to smoke, but there seems to be far less social stigma attached to the process.

So I found myself thinking back to an incident about twenty years ago here at NYU. In those days you were allowed to smoke in the privacy of your office, as long as you kept the door closed. Smokers were very protective of this option — they considered it a question of individual rights.

Smokers and non-smokers managed an uneasy coexistence under those rules, until one evening when people noticed smoke billowing out of an office window. The building was evacuated, and the fire department was called. When the firemen emerged sometime later, they reported that somebody had dropped a still-lit cigarette into a wastebasket, and the papers had eventually begun to smolder and smoke.

A flurry of email activity ensued. An administrator sent out an announcement to the department explaining what had happened, and giving a stern warning about the dangers of smoking. The tide was clearly turning against the smokers.

I’ve never been a smoker, but I couldn’t help harboring a grudging admiration for their spunk, their insistence on the primacy of individual rights. So I sent out to the department a short and somewhat politically incorrect email in response.

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “The wastebasket was smoking in its own office.”

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