Tuesday, March 13, 2007

College of The Albemarle Ban on Tobacco Use Anywhere on Campus Goes Into Effect Tomorrow

According to an article in the Virginian-Pilot, the College of The Albemarle - a community college in North Carolina - will ban all tobacco use on its campuses starting tomorrow. The ban includes both cigarettes and smokeless tobacco and encompasses all campus locations, including private cars parked in college lots.

From the article: "Already unwelcome at a growing number of restaurants and high school campuses in North Carolina, smokers are now being banished from College of The Albemarle. Starting Wednesday, COA will become the first community college in North Carolina to prohibit using tobacco products anywhere on its campuses. No smoking or chewing tobacco will be permitted, even in a private vehicle parked in a college lot. "We feel that if we allow smoking to occur in cars, then enforcing the policy will be much more difficult," a handout from the school said."

The Rest of the Story

This is going too far.

Those who are familiar with this blog know that I am all for protecting the public from secondhand smoke exposure in places where they cannot easily avoid that exposure. But a complete ban on smoking on an entire campus, including in parked cars in parking lots, is going too far.

Obviously, this policy is not about protecting the public from secondhand smoke exposure. It is about trying to protect smokers from themselves. In other words, it is a classic case of health paternalism. Or to put it another way - the lifestyle police.

Years ago, when I was lobbying for smoke-free workplace ordinances in communities around the country, I would often be confronted by smokers' rights advocates who would argue that the anti-smoking movement is the lifestyle police who are trying to tell people what they should and should not be doing. At the time, I would respond by saying "No - we're not. We're just trying to prevent you from smoking in locations where other people can't avoid that exposure."

Well - apparently, I was wrong. This has clearly become about more than just protecting the nonsmoker from secondhand smoke exposure. We are now trying to tell people what they should and should not be doing, and what they can and cannot do in terms of their own health risks.

While I think it is entirely appropriate for the college to be concerned about the health of its community and to promote healthy behavior among its faculty, staff, and students, I do not believe that it is appropriate for the college to dictate the health behavior of its community members on campus when it does not directly affect others.

If the college really wants to promote a healthy lifestyle on campus, then why doesn't it also ban the ingestion of fatty foods or high-calorie soft drinks on campus? And should it not also require students to wash their hands after using the bathroom? And how about requiring the HPV vaccine for all female students? Or requiring students to lose enough weight to bring their body mass index down below 25 before they can show up on campus? And how about requiring students to take multivitamins and antioxidants, which have been proven to improve health status signficantly? How about banning the ingestion of trans-fats on campus? Requiring all persons' blood pressures on campus to be below 140/90? Higher than that and they are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

There are a lot of health behaviors that a college campus can dictate. For all but smoking, the college chooses to engage in appropriate health education and health promotion interventions. Smoking, however, is singled out as the one behavior that must be dictated. Why?

The upshot of this new policy is that the college is going to alienate many of the smokers in the community. And it is going to have the result of keeping out many high school students or young adults who smoke, but will choose not to attend the college because of its attempt at lifestyle control.

This is the kind of thing that is going to give public health in general, and tobacco control specifically, a bad name. We already have enough people calling us the lifestyle police and accusing us of not respecting individual freedom and autonomy. Do we have to give them more ammunition? More importantly, do we need to prove them right?

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