WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It's been a long time coming, but at last an organized counterattack is being mounted against one of the most insidious offenses in our society: aromatic aggression, or the unrestrained wafting of supposedly pleasing scents.
Law has historically enshrined the principle that freedom to swing one's fist ends where another person's nose begins. But when it comes to assault by smell, there are no bounds. Many magazines now reek like a harem, while rush-hour office elevators are filled with a miasma of intrusive scents.
The profound erotic qualities that advertisements connect to some of these aromas are surely appropriate in proper settings, but their suitability for a long day at a computer console or a teller's window is open to question. While we tend to be extremely protective of our other senses, an open season on the sense of smell has long been tolerated, perhaps out of a sense of helplessness.
Happily, a resistance movement has emerged, located in California's Marin County, that affluent bastion of individualistic pursuit of good living. There, according to press reports, an alliance of environmental groups is backing a petition to bar ''discretionary fragrances''-- i.e., perfumes, colognes, etc. -- from public meetings of the County Parks Commission. That's just a starter. A later goal is to extend the ban to offices, schools and hospitals.
The opposition to scent assaults arises not only from aesthetics, but also from the growing recognition that some people suffer from painful, even life-threatening, sensitivities to various aromatic compounds. Physicians and other concerned specialists have long puzzled over whether the reported symptoms are psychological in origin, truly physical, or some combination. They even argue about the name of what they're arguing about.
A long review in Chemical & Engineering News under the title ''Multiple Chemical Sensitivity,'' indicates that the weight of professional opinion has swung to the view that a lot of people are seriously sickened by common substances. Among them are paint, gasoline fumes, tobacco smoke, glues, carpeting, building materials -- and many other scented products, including perfumes and colognes.
What's striking about this list is that the ''discretionary fragrances'' are in a class by themselves, situated beyond the web of environmental and health regulations that, at least in theory, apply to most items in the marketplace. Cars can't legally belch fumes and fewer and fewer public places tolerate smoking. But there's no law against dousing yourself with an aromatic solution of roses, cinnamon, lemons and mint and plunging into society.
The campaign to curb aromatic aggression faces daunting opposition, because a lot of people obviously prefer a bottled aroma to their own natural variety. They prefer it so much, in fact, that the big-league perfume industry confidently spends many millions to introduce a new brand name, knowing that it can make it back many times over. Launched several years ago with a $19 million splash that ranged from television to magazine ''scent strips,'' Obsession perfume is reported to have made $30 million at wholesale in 10 months. Brazen names seem to help -- as evidenced by Opium, Decadence and Poison. Astonishing prices -- $100 an ounce -- are no impediment to success, and probably even boost sales.
Are the Californians on a hopeless mission? Not necessarily. Remarkable swings in personal tastes have taken place in recent years. Alcohol and cigarette consumption have declined sharply in response to health warnings. Dietary fat has become a public enemy. Sales of fur coats have been hard hit by animal-rights protesters.
Pungent magic in a bottle has a lot of appeal. But that doesn't make it immune to ridicule and health concerns that could produce a sudden turnabout at the sales counter.
Can romance blossom and thrive without perfume? It probably can.
Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.