Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Washington University to Ban Smoking on Its Entire Campus in Order to Create Healthy Working and Learning Environment

According its communications department, Washington University in St. Louis will ban smoking and tobacco use on its entire campus, including all outdoor property owned by the university (e.g., parking lots, sidewalks, streets, lawns, etc.) starting in July 2010. The purpose of the initiative is "to provide a healthy, comfortable and productive work and learning environment for students, faculty and staff."

Dr. Alan Glass, the assistant vice chancellor and director of the university's health and wellness center stated: "Smoke-free environments significantly reduce exposure to secondhand smoke, which has been associated with health problems such as heart disease and respiratory illnesses. This is an important campus health initiative, and the university will offer support to those affected in hopes of making the transition as easy as possible for our campus community."

He also stated: "We have much work to do, but when this initiative has been accomplished, we will have a healthier working and learning environment."

The Rest of the Story

If the real interest of Washington University was to create a healthier and safer environment for its students, then the first thing the university should do is not to ban tobacco use on the campus, but to eliminate alcohol use. While smoking on the campus causes few acute health problems, drinking on the campus causes a great deal of illness and injury and is a substantial threat to the health and safety of students.

A comprehensive review of the subject published in 2005 found that alcohol use among college students is the cause of more than 500,000 unintentional injuries and more than 600,000 assaults among college students each year (see: Hingson R, Heeren T, Winter M, Wechsler H. Magnitude of alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18-24: Changes from 1998 to 2001. Annual Review of Public Health 2005; 26:259-279).

In addition, approximately 2.8 million college students drive under the influence of alcohol and there are approximately 1700 annual alcohol-related deaths among college students.

I'm not arguing here that alcohol use should be banned on college campuses, but I am pointing out the inconsistency and hypocrisy of banning tobacco use in order to achieve a healthy campus but not eliminating alcohol use as well. Arguably, alcohol is a more important or at least more immediate threat to the safety, health, security, and well-being of college students.

Thus, if the university is truly interested in creating a safe and healthy environment and feels that banning all tobacco use on campus grounds is justified, it would also have to ban alcohol use in order to have any consistency or credibility.

The main argument the university is using to justify this policy is that it will protect members of the university community from exposure to secondhand smoke. That's fine, but what's required for that is not a complete ban on smoking, but simply a ban on smoking in university buildings and any outdoor locations where nonsmokers could not easily avoid exposure. Clearly, the purpose of a complete smoking ban has nothing to do with nonsmokers. It is an attempt to dictate the lifestyle choices being made by smokers. That too would be fine if all unhealthy lifestyle choices were being dictated by the university (or at least those lifestyle choices causing more than, or as much harm as smoking). But clearly, this is not the case, as alcohol - which causes many more serious and immediate problems and which also affects third parties -- is perfectly acceptable on campus.

It is this inconsistency and hypocrisy which leads me to believe that there has to be something more going on than simply a desire to create a healthy environment for the campus community. I leave it to my readers to tell me what that true underlying concern really is, because the argument that this is simply about creating a healthy campus environment just doesn't cut it for me.

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