Smoking ban is just blowing smoke

I hate people who yap on their cell phones in front of University buildings. It irks me when people blast their headphones on the campus commuter. I find it disgusting when people eat tuna fish sandwiches near me in the cafeteria. I think the University should impose bans on such annoying behavior. And why not? The University feels justified in telling students, faculty and staff where they can smoke outside.

Now, I understand and fully endorse the ban that prohibits smoking in all University buildings. It makes sense that nonsmokers should not have their health injured by other people’s smoke. But, apparently, the University is misapplying the same reasoning to ban smoking within 25 feet of University buildings. According to a Boynton Health Service spokesman, the ban is to protect pedestrians from “smoke exposure.”

“Smoke exposure” – wow, that sounds ominous, now doesn’t it? Does “smoke exposure” mean the occasional smelling of smoke when walking into a building? I’m sorry, but passing by someone smoking – as annoying as that might be – is not going to imperil your health.

Of course, I’m sure some avid nonsmoking advocates will attest that the mere smell of smoke can send fragile persons into fits of coughing. I suppose riding in an elevator with someone wearing strong perfume might do that as well. I also hear that some people are allergic to even the very smell of peanut butter – in which case, clearly, we should zone eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to only certain parts of the cafeteria.

I understand it might seem a trivial imposition for smokers to have to walk 25 paces to enjoy their cigarette (although standing outside without a building nearby to protect you from 20-below wind chill during the five Minnesota winter months might be a bit of an imposition). The issue, however, isn’t the weight of the burden on people who choose to smoke; the issue is that the University is infringing on our liberties.

Of course, freedom to smoke is not in the Constitution. Neither is the right to bear cigarettes. The Constitution is, however, based on the principle of liberty. This principle was most notably proffered by John Stewart Mill, who said, to paraphrase: “As long as it doesn’t screw other people’s shit up, we’re free to do what we want.” Known as “the Harm Principle,” this guiding ideal is what America, liberty and freedom are all about. The principle is to protect each of us from the tyranny of the majority.

Harm isn’t what this smoking ban is really about. In fact, “health” is a big, fat red herring – there are no health reasons for this ban (and shame on Boynton for spinning it that way).

Think about it: If there were actually health risks, then why wouldn’t Boynton and the University actually enforce the ban? After all, it seems grossly negligent to identify a “health” issue, and then turn your back on it. Oh wait, they did put tiny stickers on the front doors of a few buildings.

Let’s be honest. This ban is cosmetic. The ban is purely to serve the political interests of those involved: it looks good on brochures as the University tries to solicit money from donors and it looks good for the political careers of the people who legislated the ban.

The University can now claim it’s “tough” on smoking and that it’s promoting good, clean values (irrespective of trampling on individual liberties). They even get a bonus: by not enforcing the ban, they don’t have to do any work or get mired in controversy. Meanwhile, it looks like they’re getting something done, while all they’re doing is holding officious meetings and flapping their gums – the epitome of politics. But, hey, it’ll look good on their resumes.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical; perhaps the University isn’t being disingenuous, but warm-heartedly paternalistic. In that case, I say to the University, put your enforcement where your policies are or shut up. Of course, I mean that as a constructive criticism.

The University can proclaim itself an institution that protects the health of its students, faculty and staff; it can extol the virtues of good, clean living. But if they’re really committed to that, they need to provide more than just lip service and stickers. Otherwise, it seems they’re just blowing smoke.

Matthew Brophy is a graduate student. He welcomes comments at [email protected]