Extending the frontiers: working despite Alzheimer's and campus smoking bans

When I was growing up in the 1970s I complained to my mother that I didn’t like cigarette smoke. She told me to get used to it because the major decisions were made in smoke-filled rooms and I wouldn’t want to be left out. Cigarette packs already had the Surgeon General’s warning on them, but we never would have anticipated the extent to which smoking would come under pressure in the ensuing 30 or 40 years. In retrospect it seems obvious that smoking doesn’t belong in offices, classrooms, or airplanes. Once the dangers (and not just the nuisance factor) of secondhand smoke became clearer, it was also easy to understand why cigarettes could be banned from restaurants and even bars.

Now things are going a bit further as at least 500 colleges nationwide forbid smoking anywhere on campus. The University of Massachusetts Amherst and Salem State are the latest to join this trend in Massachusetts. Overall I think it’s a good idea and one that most people –including smokers– will eventually come around to supporting. In addition to curbing the hazards of secondhand smoke it helps smokers quit and avoid relapse and also prevents new smokers from taking up the habit. Still I’m not completely comfortable with the idea of banning something that’s legal. And considering how much societal norms toward smoking have shifted over the decades I do think there’s something to the argument that this move may lead to more and more top-down regulation of behaviors, leading to an overall loss of freedom and decline of personal responsibility.

Another area where change has been dramatic over time is the acceptance and mainstreaming of people with illnesses and disabilities. The latest to push the envelope is University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt, who plans to continue working despite a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. She’ll have plenty of support from her assistants and is uniquely positioned because of her winning record. Still it’s an exciting change from what one would typically expect.

August 31, 2011

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