Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Department of Health and Human Services is Promoting Complete Outdoor Tobacco Use Bans on College Campuses, Despite Lack of Scientific Evidence to Support Need for These Policies

Earlier this fall, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a new initiative to promote outdoor tobacco use bans on every college campus in the United States. These bans are intended not to protect the public from secondhand smoke exposure, but to make it difficult for tobacco users on campus so that they decide to quit using tobacco.

According to an article in the Daily Caller: "the Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative, reportedly part of Health and Human Services’ national Tobacco Control Strategic Action Plan, which will push ... institutions of higher learning to adopt tobacco-free policies. “Twenty million students, about a third of all young adults in this country, are enrolled in higher education,” added University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network executive director and Koh advisor Clifford Douglas. “Through their campus policies, colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to influence a student’s daily life.”"

According to DHHS, a campus tobacco-free policy is one where "no employee or member of the public may use any tobacco product anywhere on facility grounds." Thus, these policies prohibit:
  • the father of a student from using Camel snus in his car parked in a university parking lot;
  • a member of the public visiting a campus library from using Ariva (a dissolvable tobacco) while sitting in her car in the library parking lot;
  • a faculty member from smoking in a remote area of an unoccupied lot at 11:00 at night with no one around.

The Rest of the Story

While the father of the student is prohibited from using Camel snus in his car parked in the university parking lot, his son is allowed to drink alcohol on campus to the point of intoxication.

While the member of the public visiting a campus library may not use Ariva, students may proceed from the library to university parties where alcohol is served in abundance.

While the faculty member may not smoke in a remote area of an unoccupied lot, the students who that faculty member teaches are within university rules to consume alcohol at university parties and become intoxicated.

Might I suggest that when we are devoting national government resources to banishing tobacco use from every remote area of college campuses, yet allowing rampant alcohol use, intoxication, and alcohol-related violence, sexual assault, and other consequences to continue due to the address alcohol use on college campuses, something is wrong with our priorities and our perspective.

Why is it necessary for DHHS to promote tobacco-free campuses policies? Would it not be enough for DHHS to engage in a campaign to promote smoking bans in indoor areas of all college campuses and in outdoor areas where nonsmokers congregate, such as building entrances or public events? What would be lost by engaging in a vigorous campaign to ensure that no nonsmoker on a campus need be exposed to secondhand smoke? Why the need to ban not only all smoking anywhere on campus, but also all tobacco use anywhere on campus?

A major problem with the policy is that it is paternalistic. It aims not to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure, but to protect smokers from themselves. The same reasoning, for example, would justify policies to ban the consumption of unhealthy foods or soft drinks on college campuses.

Another major problem is that there is no evidence that these policies will achieve their desired goal. I am aware of no studies which demonstrate that campus tobacco-free policies lead to a decline in tobacco use among university-affiliated individuals or among the public. In fact, my own research failed to find any effect of 100% bar and restaurant smoking bans on adult smoking rates. It is not clear that these policies actually encourage smokers to quit. Instead, they most likely shift the places where smokers smoke. Smokers will go off campus to smoke, finding areas that are not on campus grounds. But it's not clear that these policies result in them quitting.

These policies are also hypocritical, because they tell students that it is not acceptable to use tobacco, but that you can drink as much alcohol as you want. To be sure, alcohol use is a much more serious problem in terms of causing actual death and destruction on college campuses. Hundreds of students die from alcohol-related consequences, but I am not aware of any deaths among college students from tobacco use. What these policies do is look the other way towards the problem of alcohol use, while making it look like the colleges are really concerned about student health and welfare. No wonder colleges love these policies.

And no wonder the alcohol industry loves these policies as well. They divert attention from the death and destruction caused by alcohol and take the alcohol companies off the hood. One of the partners working with DHHS on the campus tobacco-free initiative is the BACCHUS network, which is funded largely by the alcohol industry.

It is unfortunate that the DHHS is essentially partnering with the alcohol industry in helping to divert attention from the alcohol problem by focusing resources on the need to ban tobacco in every remote area of campus, while alcohol use continues to remain rampant throughout the campus.

Moreover, the DHHS is diverting attention away from areas where there is a real need to protect people from secondhand smoke: the 24 states that still do not offer protection for workers in bars, restaurants, and casinos. If DHHS really wants to do something to save lives, it should spend its resources on a vigorous initiative to spread bar/restaurant and casino smoking bans to these 24 states, instead of worrying about whether someone might be chewing a tobacco orb in a parked car.

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