Doctor Science Knows

Friday, June 12, 2009

Smoking Bans and Smell

shaddup. I'll work tonight.

At Crooked Timber Henry reports on the effects of recent smoking bans:
When Ireland banned smoking in enclosed spaces in 2004, I would have been prepared to bet large amounts of money that the ban would be universally ignored (Irish citizens have historically had a flexible attitude to the interpretation of legal rules that don’t suit them). In particular, I would have predicted that the ban would never work in pubs. But it did – pretty well instantaneously as best as I could tell. If it hadn’t been for the Irish example, I would have bet even larger amounts that the ban would never have taken off in Italy (where storeowners are legally obliged to give you a receipt when you buy something, to make it more difficult for them to fiddle taxes, and where the general attitude to large swathes of civil and criminal law seems best characterized as a kind of amiable contempt). But again, it appears to have worked.

I haven’t seen any research on this (if someone knows of any, let me know in comments), but my best guess in the absence of good evidence would be that the success of the ban reflected instabilities in previously existing informal norms about where people could or could not smoke.
My comment:

The Irish case is very interesting, and not what I would have expected, either.

I think one reason for the norm fragility on this issue is a peculiarity of the nervous system. Speaking as a lifetime non-smoker, one of the things that annoys me most is the smell. Smell is the most adaptation-prone of the senses: that is, we "get used" to smells more quickly and thoroughly than for other types of stimuli. The consequences for smoking are:

a) smokers have no idea what it smells like, none.

b) as the number of smokers goes down, the smoke from the remaining ones is *more* annoying and obvious to non-smokers, because we're no longer adapted to moving through a constant blue-gray fog.

In the 60s and 70s, everyone smoked in eating/drinking places all the time, it was just part of how they were. By the 90s, it was much less common, and I'd feel free to leave a place if it was too smoky. Now, I can tell if my husband has talked to a smoker, by the smell clinging to his clothes; I've returned books to the library, because the previous borrower had smoked while reading them and the smell wafting up from the pags was repulsive.

So I think it's partly that a lot of people were looking for an excuse to ask people to stop smoking, but also that the fewer smokers there are in the population the more stinky they seem.

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:56 PM  

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