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Rethinking the Duke smoking ban

laissez faire et laissez passer

A few days ago, I was with some friends who were enjoying cigarettes on campus, before a gentleman stopped us to inform these smokers that smoking was “illegal” on Duke’s campus. Notwithstanding the falsity of his statement, the incident got me thinking more broadly about the incoming smoking ban on Duke’s campus, and perhaps why Duke should take a step back and reconsider its efforts.

In April of last year, the Duke administration announced that it will stop selling cigarettes in the University Store  by July 2018, and ultimately prohibit the consumption of all combustible tobacco products on any property owned by Duke, starting in July 2020. This initiative was part of the more extensive “Healthy Duke” initiative it started in April 2017. While it is admirable  to promote a “healthier” campus, it seems slightly strange that Duke has suddenly decided to ban smoking and force smokers into cessation programs, while students brazenly drink themselves into hospitalization, hangover, and likely long-term liver damage.

There are several reasons why this well-meaning ban may be counter-productive. First, one’s decision to smoke is an issue of freedom. . As a private institution, Duke has every right to engage in such prohibition efforts on its property, but not without clear overtones of demeaning paternalism. The overall purpose of these efforts, at least according to official Duke sources, is to save members of the Duke community from themselves. The science is clear that regularly smoking cigarettes can have disastrous health consequences, but what is less clear is why Duke should decide for Duke students and employees whether they should or should not take this risk.

Beyond this, a campus-wide attack on smoking punishes some groups more than others. Individuals of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be smokers than those higher in the social and economic rungs. Students on other campuses have  complained of a disproportionate impact on international students. A smoking ban runs counter to our school’s mission of fostering cultural and geographic diversity.  Many students on Duke’s campus come from countries where smoking is seen to be part of daily life. These students are more likely to have become addicted to cigarettes before arriving at Duke, only to come here and find that their habits are unwelcome, and they must conform to these new standards created by the social engineers in charge.

Additionally, if we are simply concerned about the health effects of tobacco, it seems unnecessary to penalize cigar and pipe smokers as well. While cigar smoking is not without risk, it is far less risky than cigarette smoking, in many important respects. Similarly, Duke has refrained from adding chew tobacco, which greatly increases the risk for various cancers without any evidence that it helps people quit smoking, to its list of proscribed substances.

One might even say that it is less about the health risks embraced by smokers, and more about the risks of those who have chosen not to smoke. After all, second-hand smoking is almost as, if not just as bad as actually smoking, right? Some studies have  have  found no correlation between low rates of passive smoking and lung cancer. In his summary of the paper, Daniel Fisher points out that “Only among women who had lived with a smoker for 30 years or more was there a relationship that the researchers described as ‘borderline statistical significance.’” Recent research with large populations has also found that heart disease risks from second hand smoking were greatly overstated, especially at the low levels of passive smoking most Duke students are exposed to on campus.

Duke claims that it has considered the health effects of tobacco consumption and the various groups that will be affected by this ban, yet such consideration must necessarily entail a more moderate approach. Instead of embracing a policy that will entail enormous enforcement costs (if it is even enforced at all), perhaps Duke could consider creating “designated smoking areas.” Duke should be commended for its efforts to help smokers who want to quit, but one should always be skeptical of one-size-fits-all policies. Instead of relegating smokers into the darkness, such a policy would be far more consistent with protecting non-smokers, while respecting the diversity of our community. 

Nikhil Sridhar is a Trinity senior. His column, "laissez faire et laissez passer," normally runs on alternate Mondays. 

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