Wednesday, June 13, 2012

College Officials Demand End to Smoking on Campus; But You Can Still Drink As Much as You Want

The consequences of drinking on college campuses are enormous. In a report on the consequences of drinking on college campuses, Vice President Joe Biden pointed out that: "Crimes associated with alcohol and drug use are arguably the most prevalent crimes on college campuses today. Alcohol use and abuse is by far the most prevalent form of substance use by college students. ... With over 3,000 institutions of higher education spread across the country, few individual communities devote more than sporadic attention to an issue that in the aggregate constitutes a major, arguably the major, public health problem for college students."

Importantly, Biden's report points out that: "A national report that reviewed published studies concluded that alcohol was involved in two-thirds of college student suicides, in 90% of campus rapes and 95% of violent crime on campus." Thus, alcohol is a problem not merely because it causes harm to users, but because of the severe consequences for bystanders as well.

Despite the severe consequences of drinking on college campuses for innocent bystanders, college officials in Ohio and elsewhere are this week announcing a push not for restrictions on drinking on campus, but instead for a complete ban on tobacco use anywhere on college campuses.

An editorial in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer this past Sunday addressed this issue: "The more that's known about the dangers of smoking both to smokers and those around them, the more reasonable it seems for the Ohio Board of Regents to recommend that Ohio's public colleges ban smoking on their campuses.Currently, the state's two-year and four-year colleges and universities prohibit smoking within college buildings but allow it outside, with some restrictions. Only Miami University has a total ban on smoking. Board of Regents Chairman James Tuschman now wants trustees at Ohio's 13 other public universities and 23 community colleges to eliminate smoking campuswide. A spokesman says this resolution could be presented and voted upon at the regents' board meeting June 27 in Columbus. It's a good idea not just for public but also private colleges. College is where many students take up the noxious habit. And it's indisputable that smoking, along with secondhand smoke and noncigarette tobacco products, can lead to lung cancer and deadly respiratory diseases."

"Critics point out that college administrators haven't fervently cracked down on underage drinking, which carries its own hazards, from date rape to alcoholism. College officials could and should do far more to put an end to the scourge of underage drinking. But their failures in one arena don't mean they should fail to act in others, particularly since students tend to pick up these potentially deadly habits in response to the stress and social pressures of high school and college."

At the same time, the State University of New York Board of Trustees approved a resolution this week that supports a complete ban on tobacco use at all SUNY campuses. This includes all grounds, not only indoors but outdoors as well. As with the Ohio proposal, it includes a ban on smoking in private cars on campus. And as with the Ohio proposal, it includes a ban on smokeless tobacco use as well as cigarette smoking.

The Rest of the Story

The editorial misses the point. The argument that smoking shouldn't be banned on campuses because officials aren't also banning alcohol use is not based on the premise that policies must be consistent. Instead, it is based on the premise that it is inappropriate to legislate otherwise lawful personal behavior when that behavior has no impact on other people. In other words, there is a limit to coercive policies that can be promulgated for paternalistic reasons.

So the fact that officials aren't cracking down on underage drinking does not undermine support for banning smoking because it points out that officials are being inconsistent. It undermines support for banning smoking because it points out that officials are apparently not willing to enact policies - no matter how much they would benefit the public's health - when those policies are purely paternalistic.

In other words, the critical point is not that college officials are not cracking down on binge drinking by banning it; the point is that college officials would not crack down on binge drinking by banning it. In public health, we generally don't ban otherwise lawful behavior for purely paternalistic reasons unless that behavior could directly cause severe, immediate harm or death.

If banning tobacco use on college campuses is justified, then so is regulating what foods can or cannot be consumed on campus, how much exercise a person must get, and what types of protection must be used to prevent sexually transmitted infections.

What needs to be justified is the use of coercive restriction of lawful behavior for paternalistic purposes for one behavior, when similar actions are not being taken, and would not even be considered, for other behaviors. This is the point which the editorial misses. I have not yet read an adequate justification for the use of a coercive paternalistic policy to prevent tobacco use on campus, especially when most would agree that the same reasoning would support a ban on alcohol use on campus, which no college officials seem willing to even consider.

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