By Thomas Collier
On the day students return to campus this January from winter break, the air will be fresh, clean and crisp. The campus will be completely tobacco-free because of a ban, and I’ll be across the street, smoking.
The reasons for the ban are understandable: smoking stinks, makes it easier to catch airborne illnesses, causes cancer and polluting fumes pose a health threat to others. Smoking is bad. One should not, however, take this to mean that smokers themselves are bad because they enjoy a cigarette now and again – an association that seems to be drawn, however unintentionally, by many nonsmokers.
Smokers aren’t really a close-knit group, and I’ve yet to meet a person who is very passionate about the act of smoking. We’re not like beer nerds or oenophiles or even cigar aficionados: we smoke because we like to smoke, but that’s about as far as it goes. That said, the smoking ban that USM intends to put in place next semester will surely bring smokers together in some fashion, whether it be in an off-campus huddle to stay warm in the cold weather or as part of some sort of smoketastic protest. If university administrators think that the smoking ban will encourage students and staff to quit smoking, I suspect that they are in for a disappointment. Smokers can and will smoke elsewhere. I don’t say this because I’m a proud smoker, for I am not, but because I know, unlike many of those who agree with the smoking ban, what it is that makes smoking enjoyable and precisely how difficult of a habit it is to quit.
Most people are aware of the health risks of smoking and of being around smokers while they smoke. One would posit that fear of contact with second-hand smoke is perhaps the biggest reason for USM’s smoking ban. Yet again, allow me to iterate that this is an entirely understandable concern. I don’t want to give anyone cancer. One may wish to consider, however, that the carcinogens produced in tobacco combustion are little different from those produced in a bonfire or household hearth. In fact, studies have shown that wood combustion – just as it occurs in a fireplace, for instance – actually releases more carcinogens and mutagens that are up to 40 times more harmful than those found in cigarette smoke; yet, we don’t put our wood stoves and fireplaces across the street, do we? If an individual can detect the wonderful scent of burning wood – a scent so often associated with winter and the holiday season – that person may be at a greater risk of developing lung-related health issues than if he or she were to come into contact with second-hand cigarette smoke
Why should the university, a public state institution, dictate what its paying students are allowed to do with their own bodies? I’ll make the concession that smoking is an offensive bad habit, that smokers should be isolated from nonsmokers so that the air around campus may remain free of harmful pollutants, but I fail to see how it’s the university’s business whether or not a student may use a product as inoffensive as smokeless tobacco. If disposed of considerately, smokeless tobacco poses absolutely no risk to any individual other than its user. It certainly isn’t a safe product by any stretch of the mind, but its mode of consumption renders it completely innocuous to tobacco-free students, faculty and staff.
Complete tobacco prohibition would make sense if USM were attended mostly by children, but as nearly every attending student and staff member is an adult, the very idea is honestly a bit ridiculous. We don’t need to hold hands to cross the street. We needn’t be required to wear knee pads in case we fall. We are aware of the risks of smoking and those of other quotidian activities. We can make our own choices, and we will.
Though I’m dismayed by the institution’s upcoming tobacco ban, one shouldn’t assume that the currently implemented smoking policy is otherwise satisfactory or any less deserving of disappointment. Why, for instance, don’t smokers have well-positioned smoking areas? Currently there are not, nor have there ever been, convenient or obvious places for students and staff to smoke. Apparently, designated smoking areas do currently exist, but they are so far removed from the typical smoking spots and so poorly marked that it’s no surprise that students keep smoking in the same areas as they always have. Perhaps if the university worked to accommodate these smokers – students, faculty and staff – instead of treating them like inferiors without any say in university policy, this tobacco issue would not be an issue.