Let’s all attempt to be amiable. As a former smoker, I find cigarettes viscerally disgusting, but I also know that smokers need to smoke. And I don’t believe that our administration has the right to coerce students into behavior that it feels are in their best interests.
Traditionally, in this country, we have only allowed intrusions on our freedom for the excellent reason of preventing other more serious incursions. This is how the campus-wide smoking ban is being sold— as a way to protect innocent, nonsmoking students from those who choose to poison themselves.
The problem is that the benchmark secondhand smoke studies we all know and love, such as a 1992 study by the Environmental Protection Agency, were done indoors.
Despite our professed love of freedom and self-determination, Americans have always accepted reasonable limits. For example, I can scream FIRE outside on the quad, if the whim strikes me, but if I did the same thing in a crowded lecture hall I might face legal repercussions.
We know that secondhand smoke is bad, because we’ve had it drilled into our heads or because we’re old enough to remember what a restaurant or bar filled with smoldering cigarettes smells like. And studies have shown that secondhand smoke is dangerous indoors.
The problem is that all studies on the danger of secondhand smoke outdoors have been attempts to prove that you can draw a meaningful parallel between outdoor cigarette smoke and the indoor cigarette smoke we know is a hazard.
This is the premise of a study claiming to be the first to directly measure human exposure to tobacco smoke outdoors. As the author of the study emphasized, directly measuring human exposure to outdoor tobacco smoke is crucial to understanding its health effects.
One researcher concluded that, “this thing, [outdoor secondhand smoke], that critics have been dismissing as trivial, is not,” in a press release.
Yet in the study he claimed was the first publication of peer-reviewed data of outdoor secondhand smoke concentrations, researchers hoping to cement the deadly reputation of outdoor smoke instead demonstrated its fundamental harmlessness.
The study, “Real Time Measurement of Outdoor Smoke Particles,” published by Stanford in 2007, found that within about eight to 18 inches of a cigarette, there are dangerous levels of smoke. From three to six feet away, those levels drop by half, or more, and at six feet, “levels near single cigarettes were generally close to background.”
So, from six feet away, the level of toxic, cancer-causing smoke from a cigarette is the same as it is anywhere else you might be standing, said the study.
There’s more. Unlike secondhand smoke indoors, when outdoors your exposure drops to zero soon after the offending cigarette is put out. Confirming that our intuitive understanding of the dangers of secondhand smoke is often valid, you have a greater risk of exposure if you’re standing downwind of the cigarette.
The study does show that patios and other semi-enclosed areas can create more harmful effects. This finding validates the 20-foot smoking ban we already have in front of entrances and exists and in patio type areas, but it does not justify expanding that ban to the entire campus.
Staying six feet away from a smoker also sounds reasonable; but only if you turn it around on the smoker. Smoking while walking down a crowded street, or quad, is rude. We already know that it is rude to blow smoke in a strangers face, and if that’s the problem, we need to think of a better way to solve it than an outright smoking ban.
Since the public safety argument is nonsense, advocates for outdoor smoking bans try to reinforce that invalid argument with others featuring esthetics and concern for the health of the smoker. All these arguments show is that the only morally or legally sound argument for banning smoking outside, which is public health, is woefully inadequate.
If you are concerned for the health of your smoking peers, consider that I am concerned for your health as well, and would dearly love to ban all sugar from our campus for that reason.
For a look at the real motivations behind the ban, consider Stan Hebert, who chairs CSU East Bay’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Committee. In an interview with The Pioneer, he cited smoking cessation resources as an appropriate way for smokers on campus to deal with the upcoming smoking ban.
This suggests that he sees quitting smoking as the expected response to a campus wide smoking ban. And an attempt to force students, staff, and faculty to quit smoking is very different from protecting the health of nonsmokers.
I am simply calling for civility on both sides. Hopefully if the administration concedes smokers the right to exist, they will make a greater effort to smoke away from nonsmokers and dispose of their butts properly. If they do not, I would certainly support policy requiring them to do so.
This post was published in The Pioneer on Thursday, May 9th, 2013.