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Local voices: Northwestern tobacco ban policy fails to consider individual rights

<p>A student smokes on the Northwestern University campus. | Photo/Edward Cox</p>

A student smokes on the Northwestern University campus. | Photo/Edward Cox

Northwestern University’s student government voted against supporting a tobacco free campus last week. The tobacco ban resolution, which a Northwestern senior brought before Associated Student Government, reduces a complex social issue into a seemingly clear cut cause on behalf of public health. Although its intent to promote a healthy University environment is laudable, the ambitious aims of the resolution is akin to letting the racehorse out of the stables too soon. Ultimately, the rights of individuals to use tobacco in open and common areas trump society’s vacuous, anti-tobacco stance.

Public hostility to habit of using tobacco comes at the cost of inclusivity. At Northwestern, I see small groups of smokers clustered outside dormitories or the university main library, sometimes socializing, sometimes brooding. What emerges is a tight knit, independent group of tobacco users clinging to a habit that defines themselves. The anti-smoking resolution establishes a moral argument in favor of wiping out the last remnants of Big Tobacco. Individual choices, however, are held in high regard at Northwestern.  

Although I cannot help but pull up my shirt collar in disgust to stifle tobacco’s musky smell of poison while strolling past an idle smoker, I feel a strange respect for the tobacco user. Like an alien species or something from the past, the smoker defies common logic of the danger of tobacco use. My sense of bewilderment toward tobacco users stems from my grade school education when I was constantly bombarded with anti-tobacco messages. Northwestern Public Health Club president Carolyn Huang mobilized the students in support of a tobacco-free campus, but may have failed to address the concerns of the people the resolution would have impacted the most.

A tobacco ban at Northwestern is premature because it lacks the means for enforcement. The Clean Air Act of Evanston prohibits smoking within 25 feet from building entrances, but I have seen students who have violated this rule. Therefore, to propose a legislation that would take tobacco regulation further would be unreasonable because current tobacco regulations lack enforcement. Establishing a tobacco free campus would be symbolic by allowing students to trumpet the clinical sterility of the Northwestern campus, but it would be meaningless if tobacco users ignore such regulations.

The Northwestern administration uses a hands-off approach to establishing controversial rules that may conflict with an individual’s rights. By reforming tobacco regulations on campus piecemeal, students may make the regulations more feasible in the eyes of the University. One solution would be for students limiting the scope of regulations under the resolution. For example, the resolution can be redrafted to only include a smoke-free policy and provide incentives for smokers to quit smoking. Another resolution may be to try to allure the University toward backing a tobacco-free policy through more material means. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, announced its tobacco free policy after the Cancer Research Institute of Texas announced that future funding of university research depended on the university’s adopting such a policy.

Therefore, the fight to end tobacco use to the last cigarette on campus may come to be defined as a battle of incentives. Although the effect of a few smokers may seem negligible on the public health, tobacco’s decimation would uplift living conditions for most students. Achieving a campus tobacco free policy would require the patient removal of incentives behind tobacco’s long standing supporters. 

 

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