Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Letter to the Editor in USA Today Questions Campus-Wide Smoking Bans as These Draconian Policies Continue to Spread

In a letter to the editor published in USA Today on October 22, John Nothdurft - a legislative specialist with the Heartland Institute in Chicago - argues that complete campus-wide smoking bans are not only an example of unwarranted political correctness, but that they also introduce safety concerns, as many students leave campus to smoke.

Nothdurft writes: "The recent bans on smoking across entire campuses at state-owned colleges in Pennsylvania are political correctness overkill. The 128-acre Clarion University is one of the newest sites in Pennsylvania for such draconian smoking rules ... In addition to protecting individual rights, legitimate safety ramifications should be taken into consideration before smoking bans are enacted. Clarion University's ban will force hundreds of students, many of whom don't have cars, to hike outside the relative safety of a college campus to partake in the legal act of smoking. This move by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is another example of a governmental entity trying to gain political favor by branding smokers as second-class citizens. The ban puts hundreds of students unnecessarily at risk when accommodations could easily be made."

In the mean time, efforts to ban smoking on entire college campuses continues to spread. An anti-smoking group at Johns Hopkins University recently announced its goal of achieving a "total smoking ban on campus."

Advocates at the University of Missouri are working to achieve a complete, campus-wide smoking ban, arguing that: "Even the seconds of walking past someone near a building entrance has a certain degree of harm."

The Rest of the Story

In my opinion, campus-wide smoking bans are draconian policies because they are far beyond what is necessary to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. The only legitimate reason to institute such policies would be to protect smokers from themselves, making the policy purely paternalistic and in my mind unjustified.

In fact, anti-smoking advocates are at such a loss to defend the paternalistic nature of these policies that they seem to be resorting to distortion and exaggeration to argue that these policies are actually needed to protect people from significant hazards posed by secondhand smoke. The advocate at the University of Missouri had to resort to the argument that even a few whiffs of smoke are harmful and cannot be tolerated.

If a university truly felt that it was within its mission to regulate the behavior of students on its campus so that they could only engage in healthy behaviors, then it would want to not only ban smoking, but also the use of alcohol, the consumption of trans-fats and junk foods, the consumption of more than a certain number of calories a day, and the practice of unsafe sex. Obviously, we would view such a policy as an undue intrusion into personal autonomy. But if it is intrusive to regulate a person's diet, then it is also intrusive to regulate a person's decision to smoke, which is also a legal behavior.

I think anti-smoking advocates realize this and therefore are distorting and exaggerating the science on the effects of secondhand smoke in order to justify these policies.

While I would oppose these policies even if they presented no safety concerns, there are some legitimate concerns. At Fullerton College in California, there have been a number of fires caused by students throwing lighted cigarettes in trash cans when they saw a safety officer approaching. One fire apparently occurred in a bathroom.

That these policies are non-enforceable is yet another argument against them, but my opinion would not change even if they could be enforced.

These policies clearly cross the line from being ones that protect health to ones that make anti-smoking advocates feel good but do little other than to stigmatize smokers.

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