Science - December 16, 2004

The ballad of the lonely smoker

Smokers are having a hard time since the smoke-free workplace became law a year ago. Wageningen UR is no exception: here and there is a ‘smoking pillar’ where puffing is legal, but smokers are increasingly forced to stand outside in all weather. It is almost New Year, time for good resolutions.

A quick round of telephone calls confirms that smokers within Wageningen UR are feeling more and more isolated, literally. During breaks the nicotine addicts can be found outside or in some hidden corner, indulging in their habit. Should he or she happen to come across another partner in crime, warm feelings of compassion arise easily between these last of the Mohicans. But, despite the mood of disapproval, it is an illusion that the smoker is one of a dying breed. In 1990 about 37 percent of the Dutch population were smokers. That figure fell slowly over the previous decade to 33 percent, and is now estimated at 30 percent. At that speed it will be a long time yet before the last fag end is stubbed out.

Whether managers choose to provide facilities for smokers remains at their discretion, and this is reflected in the facilities offered by different departments within Wageningen UR. The strictest institute is Plant Research International: the ban on smoking is taken to such an extreme that it is forbidden to smoke within a radius of 500 metres around the building. Addicts hanging around the entrance are obviously not the image PRI wants to promote. Alterra does not allow smokers either within its portals. In the LEI building in The Hague on the other hand there is a sort of cubbyhole, three by three metres, where smoking is tolerated. One poor victim relates that those who dare to enter come out smelling so awful that the cubbyhole is almost always empty. In the old Imag building, temporary accommodation for the social scientists, ‘smoke pillars’ have been erected. Looking like a strange form of parasol, these are actually giant extraction fans that start up immediately when someone stands underneath. A secretary who regards herself as a hardened smoker explains that she now has a three-minute walk before she gets to one of these creations. ‘That is time loss. I only smoke one cigarette an hour now whereas I used to get through at least three. But with all this stress I really need to smoke more.’

Fortunately there is an exception in Wageningen. The WICC has a license, so smoking is permitted in the hotel lobby, and smokers can be found exchanging knowing looks of nostalgia for the good old days. Of course many smokers cherish the wish to be free of their awful habit, but it is a wish deeply hidden behind all those smoke-ridden brain cells and the nicotine monster is not easily vanquished. Even the undersigned is full of good intentions but, like this story before it was published, those intentions will remain on the shelf for some time to come.

Joris Tielens

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