Tuesday, January 09, 2007

University of Iowa Considering Complete Ban on Smoking on Campus

The University of Iowa is considering implementing a complete smoking ban on the entire campus, including all outdoor areas (article 1; article 2).

According to an article on the KRCG website: "The University of Iowa is looking to become one of the first major universities to completely ban smoking. Removing cigarette smoke from the air by 2009 is a lofty goal. A university committee wants to start the discussion now, so Iowa can meet the deadline. The report is already on interim-president Gary Fethke's desk. A plan to gradually snuff out cigarettes until the entire campus is breathing easy. Co-chair of the smoking review policy committee Susan Johnson said, 'The biggest motivation for making changes on campus is the clear risk of danger from second hand smoke.'"

Later in the article, however, Johnson admitted that there is not evidence showing any significant risks of secondhand smoke exposure encountered while walking past a person smoking outdoors: "The committee is in favor of banning smoking everywhere, but realizes it could be an unpopular decision. Here is at least one issue to consider. Johnson says there are few, if any, studies showing a danger of inhaling as you walk past a person smoking. Most second-hand smoke studies involve heavy smoke like in a bar."

There is already an existing ban on smoking in campus buildings and outside these buildings within 25 feet of any entrance.

The Rest of the Story

The first point to make clear is that the true purpose of a complete ban on smoking on the entire campus - including all outdoor areas - cannot possibly be to protect people from the dangers of secondhand smoke. You don't need to ban smoking everywhere outdoors in order to accomplish that. As the head of the smoking policy review committee herself admitted, there are no studies showing the danger of inhaling secondhand smoke as you walk past a person smoking.

So there is something more than simply protection of nonsmokers involved with this proposal. Clearly, the proposal aims to address the health issue of smoking in general and to promote a healthy campus.

There are just a couple of problems with this, however.

First, if the University of Iowa were truly interested in promoting a healthy campus, the first thing it would have to do is create an alcohol-free campus. Without much doubt, alcohol use on campus causes a much greater and more severe threat to the health of students and college community members than drifting tobacco smoke outdoors.

According to the University's student health services, 69% of University of Iowa students report having engaged in dangerous drinking. About two-thirds of students reported having experienced hangovers, 38% reported missing class or work, 25% reported injuring themselves as a result of alcohol misuse, 22% drove after having had more than one drink, 29% reported having had unintended or regretted sex, 12% had damaged or stolen property, and a whopping 46% reported having had a blackout.

In addition, "the Iowa City ambulance service responded 214 times to alcohol-related issues in the downtown area during a six-month period and around 90 letters are sent home each year to parents of students who have experienced alcohol-related emergencies."

Sadly, the University of Iowa has suffered at least two alcohol-related deaths: one student died after drinking too much at a fraternity event and another student died after falling from a second-story balcony.

If the real concern were the overall health of the campus, it would be alcohol that would have to be banned, not smoking in every remote outdoor area of the campus, every sidewalk, street, walkway, and parking lot.

Second, if you believe that the University needs to ban smoking on campus in order to establish a healthy community environment, then certainly the University should also address the unhealthy food on its dining hall menus.

Scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, grilled ham, french toast, and the dreaded tri taters (1 gram of trans fat per ounce!) - and that's just breakfast. And how about Thursday night's dessert of peanut butter cookies, jell-o cake, and chocolate cream pie? (If I ever give a talk at the University of Iowa, I'll be sure to arrange it for a Thursday).

The University's residence halls have some excellent fat-laden items on their menus. Take, for example, the beef pot pie: 450 calories and 30 grams of fat! Or the sirloin steak: 710 calories and 60 grams of fat. Topping off your meal with a cream puff adds another 250 calories and 17 grams of fat. Thursday night's chocolate cream pie adds 350 calories and 13 grams of fat. My personal favorite - the tater tot casserole - has 345 calories and 15 grams of fat (but is worth every one of those calories). And the tater tots, which curiously are listed under vegetables, weigh in at 255 calories and 14 grams of fat.

And if you're worried about how many tri-taters you're given at a gram of trans-fat per shot, don't worry. The University has an all-you-can-eat policy, boasting that "you won't go away from Residential Dining hungry. We offer unlimited helpings on all items at every meal."

If that's the case, then please get me to Iowa City on a Sunday evening, when they feature the Kansas City barbecue pork ribs, cheesy corn bake, and hickory black beans. Or if I can't schedule my trip for a weekend, then I'll take Wednesday evening's North Carolina pulled pork, creamy coleslaw, and hushpuppies.

Between the alcohol abuse, the alcohol-related deaths, and the high-calorie, fatty food on the dining hall menus, I think that the campus has a whole lot more important health issues to worry about then if a person might possibly breathe in a few whiffs of tobacco smoke while walking past a smoker on a sidewalk somewhere.

Once again (just as in yesterday's post), it appears that something other than simply a sincere concern for the health of the student body is at work here. Why would smoking be singled out as the sole unhealthy behavior that will not be tolerated on campus? Once you set aside the concerns about secondhand smoke, which clearly do not necessitate a complete ban on smoking everywhere on campus, what separates smoking from drinking alcohol or overindulging in cream puffs and hushpuppies?

To me, the singling out of smoking again suggests that what is really going on here is moralizing, punishing smokers, showing intolerance and trying to drive smokers away from the campus.

This is not the direction that I think the anti-smoking movement should be going. Don't we know when to stop? Isn't it enough to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure in workplaces and places where they cannot avoid exposure?

The irony is: in Iowa, they seemed to have jumped over the first step. Local towns and cities cannot even pass bar and restaurant smoking laws and the state law does not require smoke-free workplaces. But soon, you can rest assured that you won't be exposed to drifting tobacco smoke in a parking lot in Des Moines, or on a sidewalk on the University of Iowa campus.

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