Scents and Sensibility

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  the National Post  ·  Mcs

The anti-perfume activists of Halifax target young and old alike. On Sunday, The Daily News reported that an 84-year-old Halifax woman was thrown out of city hall because she wore perfume to a council meeting. And yesterday, the News reported that the RCMP is investigating high school student Gary Falkenham after a teacher turned him in for wearing Aqua Velva deodorant and scented hair gel. Mr. Falkenham is understandably incredulous: "I just looked at [the officer] and said, ’Are you serious?’"

Very serious. Perfumes are strictly regulated in many parts of Halifax, including the newsroom of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 80% of schools and most government buildings. As Michael Fumento recently wrote in the National Post and The American Spectator, Halifax is the world anti-perfume "hysteria hotbed."

It is a distinction the city wears as a badge of collective gullibility. "Multiple chemical sensitivity," the dubious syndrome that is the bogeyman of the anti-perfume crusade, is the brainchild of affluent hypochondriacs. Although some studies have demonstrated that high concentrations of some perfumes can cause annoyance to allergy and asthma sufferers, there is no evidence the generic condition known as MCS exists, or that perfumes pose any greater threat to the average human than exposure to body odour, bad breath or any other smells less pleasant than scented deodorant.

But there is an issue at work here more disturbing than that of mere scientific nonsense. The campaign against perfumes is an example of a public health debate corrupted by victim culture. As with hate speech and sexual harassment, the discussion is conducted entirely on the accusers’ terms. Claims of injury, be they psychic or bronchial, are accepted at face value, on scant evidence.

Of course, it would be foolish to disagree with Haligonians on one point. An abundance of perfume – the cheap variety especially – is annoying. But law should not intrude where social norms serve effectively. We do not require legislation to ensure that our peers take showers or brush their teeth. Even in this over-regulated age, there are still some powers that should remain vested in disapproving glares and wrinkled noses.