Ban would restrict community members from exercising their right to smoke

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For a typical non-smoking student, Occidental’s proposed campus-wide ban on smoking tobacco has an understandable appeal. Many, no doubt, find the act unpleasant. The tremendous health risks of tobacco smoke are well-known. It is hard to argue that non-smokers benefit personally by allowing smoking on campus, so it is not surprising that some students are seeking to eliminate it entirely from school grounds.

Citing concerns for public health and the need for clean air, the Student Wellness Advisory Council (SWAC) is circulating a petition to ban smoking campus-wide. Yet a blanket prohibition on smoking would be a significant strain and inconvenience to a minority of students, faculty and staff who smoke. The clean air which SWAC seeks can be achieved by lesser measures, such as a ban on smoking in the academic quad.

Some students, faculty and staff choose to smoke on a regular basis — banning smoking on campus would cause them undue stress. The 10-minute break between classes is often too short to make leaving campus practical. A campus-wide ban would particularly burden smokers among the facilities and cleaning staff, who work longer hours and have even more limited break times.

Furthermore, the public health concern of second-hand smoke in open, outdoor areas is overstated. A Stanford study from 2007 confirmed the negative effect of smoking on outdoor air quality, but found that this negative effect was vastly reduced at a distance of six feet in an outdoor setting. At ten feet, the risk was negligible. If smokers keep their distance from frequented walkways, especially at twenty feet, they do not pose a serious health risk to passersby.

Most of the conflict between those who smoke and those who are disturbed by tobacco smoke happens in the quad. It manifests itself in butts discarded under benches, reproachful gazes and the occasional judgmental comment. Better than an outright prohibition, restricting tobacco smoking in this one area would help diffuse the situation.

Non-smokers should also do their part to try to better understand smokers and not reinforce a climate of judgement.

The health problems associated with tobacco smoking cannot be easily understated, but the right of an individual to smoke must also be emphasized. It is a personal choice made by informed adults and it should be respected. By making smoking more impractical, especially for students living on campus, a ban would be an intercession into the crucial right to choose.

Not all smokers want to quit, and those that are prepared to do so should be able to do it on their own terms. In light of the petition, Emmons has agreed to offer smoking cessation counseling. This will be a welcome service, but the authors of the petition would be naive to think this will stop a majority of people from smoking or that it justifies an imposition on smokers’ rights.

Overcoming an addiction is a very serious and stressful thing to do, requiring immense will and effort. It is more difficult to do in a stressful situation. It is not up to anyone but the individual to decide to quit.

For the majority who are addicted, it provides an immense stress relief, without which discomfort and anxiety increase. It is well documented that smoking is much more common among highly stressed individuals and those with mental health problems. As a community, we should take more time to understand the importance of mental health in various capacities. For some people, smoking is essential to staying stable. Spending most of your break walking to sit on the curb of Campus Road would be an uncomfortable and isolating experience, which non-smokers should consider before forcing it upon others.

Students and staff members who are addicted need to smoke or else experience mild to severe discomfort as they enter withdrawal. Smokers will suffer if they are not allowed to smoke on campus. Understanding their situation, we should not try vainly to prevent them from smoking as this petition proposes, but offer emotional support. We could do this while taking into consideration public health by enforcing a ban only within very specific high-traffic areas.

We, the non-smoking majority, should realize we have enough space on campus, and enough consideration for the rights of smokers to find a better solution than a blanket ban.

Will Stupp is a senior Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture major. He can be reached at stupp@oxy.edu.