Illegal Odors

Convicted of being too smelly...

Posted Oct 20, 2009

I recently read that Honolulu is seeking to criminalize "being too smelly" on public transit. According to an article posted by the Associated Press on September 2, 2009, two city councilmen have co-sponsored an anti-odor bill that would impose a $500 fine or up to six months in prison to any bus rider convicted of failing the sniff test. The specific criteria of this sniff test are: "odors that unreasonably disturb others or interfere with their use of the transit system." Moreover, these so-defined scents could be anything deemed emanating from the individual and/or his possessions.

This law if enacted would be the first criminalization of personal odor in the United States. The city of Halifax in Nova Scotia imposed a ban on scent in 2000, specifically artificial scent, which resulted in elderly ladies being kicked off buses for wearing perfume and high school students being accused of "assault" for sporting hair gel and Aqua Velva in class. I have not found confirmation that anyone has ever been jailed or fined for these Canadian scent offenses.

The Haligonian by-law was enacted as an appeasement to people suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. This is a condition, which Halagonians apparently suffer from in large numbers, as over a two year period around the time this law was imposed nearly 800 people presented to their doctors with the experience of a cornucopia of allergic reactions to odors, especially "artificial" ones (1). The difference between this situation and the one which Hawaii's capital is attempting to enforce, however, is that the latter is based solely on personal opinion and hence prejudice.

What makes an odor smell bad, or good, to anyone is highly dependent on the personal history of the perceiver. If someone has a negative association with the scent of roses, it will be a bad smell for him and likewise if someone has had a positive encounter with the smell of skunk it will be a pleasant scent for her. However, the context in which one is sniffing the scent plays an enormous role. The scent of skunk wafting across a meadow would be highly pleasant to me, but if it came out of my shampoo bottle I would surely be disgusted.

The person producing the odor is as much a context as a container or scenery. The bedraggled bus rider, who hasn't showered in two days, is much more likely to be perceived as emitting "disturbing odors" than the well healed business man, even if the business man hasn't changed his suit in a week. What's even more disturbing is that this bill evokes our own unfortunate racist past. In 1937 the psychologist John Dollard, while studying the development of race relations in the South, observed:
"Among beliefs which profess to show that Negro and white people cannot intimately participate in the same civilization is the perennial one that Negroes have a smell extremely disagreeable to white people."(2)

The color of the bus-rider's skin may therefore be enough to elicit a "disturbed" reaction from fellow riders, as may the rider's foreignness. Jacques Chirac, the former prime minister of France, openly declared his sympathy with the French worker for "having to put up with the noise and smell of the immigrant family living off welfare next door." The foreignness of smell along with the foreignness of the "other" goes deeply towards ingraining ethnic denigration and xenophobia.

Fortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii has recognized the potential for prejudicial discrimination that this bill may provoke. I sincerely hope that they are able to lobby successfully against the anti-odor bill's enforcement.

(1) The disease process of this condition has not been substantiated.
(2) Dollard, J. (1937). Caste and class in a Southern town. New York: Anchor Books.

Rachel Herz is the author of The Scent of Desire and on the faculty at Brown University.

For more information, click: Rachel Herz