Last week, the University held its first public forum to discuss implementation of the campuswide smoking ban. While not really answering questions like, “Whose idea was the smoking ban?”, the University clarified what will happen to students who violate the ban. No tickets will be issued — instead, smokers will be urged to attend workshops to curtail their offensive behavior. As of July 2011, the University will be, in the words of School of Public Health Dean Ken Warner, quitting smoking “cold turkey.”
Why wait two years? The administration claims it wants to take this time to gather input from students and faculty. That, of course, makes sense, since it didn’t bother to inform the Michigan Student Assembly or the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs until the day before the policy was announced last spring. But I find myself wondering if the University set a date so far in the future in order to minimize complaints from students, most of whom will graduate before being affected by the ban.
Whether intentional or not, this tactic may be working. I’ve heard some people who aren’t thrilled with the idea of a ban say that they don’t care too much because it won’t ever affect them. But regardless of how many students this will impact, all members of the campus community have an obligation to voice their opposition to an unfair policy that sets a dangerous precedent against students’ rights.
I’m not a smoker, and never have been. But the ban isn’t just a concern for smokers. The issue at hand isn’t even public health. If it were, this issue would already be settled, since outdoor smoking is neither widespread nor particularly harmful to nonsmokers. While I can see the merits of banning smoking inside University buildings (which is already in effect) and preventing smoking directly outside building entrances and windows, outdoor smoking only poses health risks to the smokers themselves. The University, then, isn’t attempting to improve public health — it’s seeking to regulate the health of individual people, the smokers themselves.
Such a move raises troubling questions about how far the University will go to regulate health on an individual level. Can you imagine the University putting limits on how many desserts you can eat in residence halls? Requiring you to visit the CCRB a couple times a week? Measuring your waist and forcing you to diet if you weigh in at an unhealthy size?
I know some people hate this “slippery slope” argument. But this isn’t a joke — take a look at Japan. According to The New York Times, the Japanese government passed a law last year that required companies and local governments to pay fines for employing overweight people who fail to slim down. Blatantly absurd policies like this one don’t appear on their own: They come about after society has acclimated to policies that are less absurd. And those policies were preceded by ones that were only slightly absurd. The “slippery slope” exists.
Just as Japan’s policy discourages companies from hiring overweight people, the University’s smoking ban will eventually turn away prospective students who are smokers. That’s a shame, since smokers disproportionately fall into lower income groups. The ban broadcasts the message that these students aren’t good enough for the University unless they can quit smoking. Dissuading such people because their habit isn’t favorably regarded by the administration directly contradicts the role of an institution of higher learning. Instead, the University should welcome students of all different beliefs, backgrounds and habits. Smokers should feel included in a tolerant, freethinking campus, without being ostracized or forced to conform.
Even if you accept the University’s argument that it wants to bring down health care costs, I question how much money will be saved by banning an activity that only about 14 percent of employees and 16 percent of students engage in. Keep in mind that smokers won’t be forced to quit, they just won’t be able to smoke on campus. So instead of significantly reducing health care costs, all this ban will do is further inconvenience and alienate smokers.
The University is free to promote public health all it wants by offering programs to assist smokers who want to make the choice to quit. It can hand out pamphlets on the risks of smoking. It can offer discounted smoking cessation products, as it plans to under the ban. But the activity itself must remain a right of all students on campus.
I urge everyone to attend the next forum, which will take place at 5 p.m. on Nov. 19 in the Walgreen Center’s Stamps Auditorium on North Campus. Students and faculty must make it clear to the administration we aren’t comfortable on a campus that tramples the rights of individuals so easily.
Robert Soave is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.