"How many non-smokers do we have here tonight?" the late comedian Bill Hicks asks a crowd in a classic bit. The people roar. "Bunch of whining little maggots." The worst kind of non-smokers, he explains in the video below, are the ones that come up to smokers, coughing, to complain about how their cigarettes are poisoning the air.
If the world can be divided into these two camps – the smokers and the non-smokers – the public spaces of the world are their battleground. But, really, it's less of a war than a contentious relationship. How that relationship plays out on the ground has a lot to do with smell.
In a fascinating paper published recently in Urban Studies, Qian Hui Tan observes that smokers are "purveyors of sensory pollution" – creating a scent that, like all odors, can invade and take over. When that space is public, the impact can be immense, segregating and stratifying public spaces.
To understand this phenomenon, Tan conducted surveys in public and quasi-public spaces in Singapore, where smoking is both popular and stigmatized.
Singapore first enacted rules about where people could smoke in public in 1970. Singapore's rules were inspired not by health concerns but by social and aesthetic ones. The "clean air" and anti-second-hand smoke movements came later. The rules have had various iterations over the years, but smoking is now prohibited within five meters of building entrances and exits. Outdoor areas are often set aside as smoking areas, as are some indoor spaces. But most commonly, a smoking area is determined by the existence of an ashtray and cigarette butts.
Tan visited some of these places and interviewed both smokers and non-smokers about how they think about the segregation of smokers to certain areas and the impact of smoking scents on people nearby.
Based on these conversations, Tan has compiled a collection of anecdotal evidence about smokers' experiences being made to feel unclean or burdensome on those around them, and some of the efforts they take to reduce the olfactory impact their smoking on people they come into contact with. From smoking downwind to keeping more space from people after smoking, the smokers questioned said they had become sensitive to the way they are perceived after coming back from a smoke break.
"I don’t go to smoking rooms because it’s stuffy and it’s like burying my face in an ashtray. I’ll smell damn bad later."
-Flora, female, regular smoker
"In an air-conditioned place, I feel more uptight because I know who the smell of [cigarette smoke] is accentuated in such enclosed spaces. I walk faster so that people smell me less."
-Hwee, male, regular smoker
"There’ll be this circumference of empty space around you, because people automatically move away from you. It’s a strategy to get myself out of the crowd quickly, but I can see how people avoid me like a plague."
-Angel, female, ex-smoker
She also talked with non-smokers, who focus on the pervasive smells of smoking.
"Smokers are a nuisance. They smoke all over the bus stop, and stink it up. Or, the whole air-conditioned bus becomes infected with their smell when they board it."
-Jake, male, non-smoker
"If cigarette smoke were odorless then I won’t feel so irritated. It’s not just the lung cancer threat – that’s intangible when the smoke hits my face. But the odor of the smoke is very tangible. I’ll try to get out of the way of the smoke as fast as I can."
-Joline, female, non-smoker
These olfactory politics create a separation between the smokers and non-smokers that's both ideological and physical – a segregation that some researchers have gone as far as calling a "spatial apartheid." And because of the invasive unavoidability of smell, the presence of cigarette smoke or its odor results in an inevitable "sensory appraisal" by others, according to Tan.
This is especially the case in the context of the city, where its density means that people are often placed in close proximity with one another. The stale tinge of smoke lingering on their bodies renders them sensually out of place and gives them away as subscribers of a ‘filthy habit’ and committers of a social-sensual infraction. This opens up opportunities for olfactory discrimination which widens the sociospatial distance between smokers and nonsmokers.
The influence of smell, Tan argues, is perhaps one of the strongest determinants of how people interact with or avoid one another in the public sphere – whether it's cigarette smoke, days without a shower or the undeniable stench of vagrancy. How exactly cigarette smells shape the use of public space is likely different from place to place. But this research argues that smell and personal habits can be a major force in shaping city life.
Top image: Ina Fassbender / Reuters
*An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate date referring to The U.S. Surgeon General's warnings on cigarettes. The reference has been removed.