Monday, August 06, 2007

String of Colleges Ban Smoking on Entire Campus; Is This Pure Paternalism Justified?

A string of colleges have announced recently that they will ban the use of any tobacco products on their campuses:

Minnesota State University - Moorhead: "Minnesota State University, Moorhead will be the first four-year public university in Minnesota to ban smoking anywhere on school grounds -- including outdoors. The policy, which will ... take effect Jan. 1, affects everything from residence halls and staff offices to parking lots and a 300-acre science center near Moorhead. Altogether, 440 campus-owned acres are affected. Use of tobacco products, including chewing tobacco, will be banned."

University of Minnesota Duluth: "The University of Minnesota Duluth ... will prohibit smoking everywhere on campus starting in May. With a statewide indoor smoking ban for most public places taking effect this fall, it made sense to push for a total campus-wide ban, said Brianna Peters, a senior and co-chairwoman of the UMD Student Health Advisory Committee. Minnesota State University Moorhead approved a similar ban last spring, but it won't go into effect until January. Campus grounds, buildings and university vehicles are included in UMD's ban."

Jamestown College: "Jamestown College is now a tobacco-free campus, school officials announced. Smoking and the use of chewing tobacco are prohibited on all college property, said Carol Schmeichel, vice president of student affairs."

The Rest of the Story

The point to emphasize is that these policies are an example of pure paternalism. We must dismiss outright the idea that these policies are necessary to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. Clearly, it is not necessary to completely ban smoking on an entire college campus. Banning smoking inside and near buildings and in any crowded outdoors locations would be enough. Moreover, smokeless tobacco does not produce secondhand smoke, so including the use of smokeless products in the ban obviously is not consistent with a simple desire to protect bystanders from harm.

Clearly, these policies are intended to protect people not from others, but from themselves. They are intended to promote health by dictating that a particular unhealthy behaviors cannot take place on campus. Whether justified or not, the policy is purely paternalistic.

So is it justified?

It might be, if these universities were dictating a range of unhealthy behaviors that were not to be tolerated on campus. If the universities decided that they would simply not allow people to engage in unhealthy behavior on campus, then it might be reasonable to include tobacco use among those behaviors. But none of these colleges are doing that. They are singling out tobacco use, and leaving all other unhealthy behaviors -- such as excessive alcohol use, eating unhealthy foods, eating too much, not consuming enough antioxidants or fiber, consuming trans-fats, eating too much fat, or failing to get enough exercise -- alone.

For these other unhealthy behaviors, these colleges are appropriately addressing them through campus wellness programs. But for use of tobacco products, the colleges are simply banning it. If you are going to try to justify a purely paternalistic intervention like this on a college campus, then I think it really needs to represent a consistent, across-the-board policy.

One thing is for certain: these schools are going to discourage smokers from attending. They are basically saying that smokers are not welcome. If I were a smoker, I certainly would not care to attend one of these colleges. It might result in a slightly healthier student body, but it is also going to cleanse the student body of 20% of the population.

While I'm not aware that anti-smoking groups are behind these policies, I'm also not aware that any have spoken out in opposition to them. Unfortunately, that is the only way to make it clear to the public that the purpose of smoking bans is to protect people from secondhand smoke, not to express intolerance for a large segment of the population.

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