Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Bans Smoking on All State-Owned Campuses, Indoors and Out; Claims it is Merely Enforcing New State Law

According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education has banned smoking completely on all state-owned college campuses (indoors and outside), claiming that this new policy merely represents implementation of the state's new clean indoor air law, which became effective on September 11.

According to the article: "Anyone who figures the cost of college ought to entitle them to light up at least now and again better take a deep breath before approaching any of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities. All of them now prohibit smoking, both inside buildings and on all outdoor grounds. The move affects 110,000 students and 12,000 campus employees statewide, including those on the Western Pennsylvania campuses of California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities. Leaders of the State System of Higher Education say the decision is their interpretation of Pennsylvania's new smoking ban, which took effect Thursday. Its statewide prohibitions extend to educational facilities, and the question became just where to draw the line on sprawling public universities. 'We consider our entire campuses educational facilities, inside and out,' state system spokesman Kenn Marshall said yesterday. 'We have classes that meet outdoors. We have events that are held outdoors. We're just basically following a state law,' he said. 'This is the way we read it.' The campuswide bans are all-encompassing, from athletic facilities and classroom labs to the student union and even parking lots within campus boundaries. There are no designated smoking areas, so those who insist on lighting up must leave campus or violate the law, officials said."

The Rest of the Story

Whether this policy is an appropriate public health measure or not, one thing that is clear is that it is not merely an implementation of the newly-effective Pennsylvania law.

Enacted Senate Bill 246 does ban smoking in public places, including educational institutions. However, the law defines a "public place" as "an enclosed area which serves as a workplace, commercial establishment or an area where the public is invited or permitted."

Thus, the only campus areas covered by the smoking ban are indoor areas and enclosed outdoor areas. If an outside area is not enclosed, then it is not regulated under the act. The Pennsylvania Department of Health itself acknowledges that the law "does not ban smoking for structures such as a deck or patio that is not enclosed by walls and a ceiling."

It is not clear to me why the System of Higher Education would try to hide behind the law (an approach which fails), rather than to simply admit that it is intentionally and voluntarily instituting this policy.

I have made my opinion clear previously that I do not view this policy as appropriate from a public health perspective because it goes far beyond the need to protect nonsmokers from tobacco smoke exposure. By regulating smoking even in open and remote outdoors locations on campuses, the policy is clearly intended as a paternalistic measure to protect smokers from their own health decisions.

The policy is also hypocritical, since its stated purpose is "to promote good health" but the System of Higher Education still allows fat-laden foods, smokeless tobacco, and alcohol on its campuses.

Perhaps this is why the System of Higher Education tried to pretend that its policy was merely a necessary implementation of the state law.

In a related note, the Pennsylvania Department of Health web site still maintains that secondhand smoke kills between one and three millions nonsmokers each year, but without qualifying the statement to indicate whether it is referring to Pennsylvanians, Americans, or all people in the world. Since the adjacent statements refer to the state of Pennsylvania, many readers will assume that the 1-3 million figure refers to the state, or possibly the nation. There would be no reason for anyone to take the statement to be referring to a global estimate. Therefore, the statement is extremely misleading and arguably, it is intentionally misleading. Although the Department of Health has apparently been made aware of this problem, it has still not taken any action to correct it.

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