Students’, staff’s right to tobacco goes up in smoke

by Leonardo Castaneda

No one likes smokers. They stink, cough and have a tendency to leave a trail of cigarette butts behind them like cancerous Hansels and Gretels. Picking on smokers, taxing and pushing them to the edges of society are cheap ways for politicians and organizations to earn brownie points from the public.

In the coming weeks, the San Diego State University Senate will consider a resolution to turn SDSU into a smoke-free campus. The move comes after a resolution passed by the Academic Senate of the California State University system encouraging individual campuses to become smoke-free. It seems to follow the lead of the University of California system, which is in the process of making all of its campuses smoke-free. The logic behind the resolution is simple: Smoking is unhealthy and the CSU shouldn’t promote unhealthy things. therefore, smoking on campus should be banned.

Unfortunately, the reality of smoking is much more complicated than this argument implies. Administrators considering the ban must first take into account students, staff and faculty’s right to engage in unhealthy activities. It’s the same right allowing us to eat greasy, fat-filled food whenever we want. It’s also the same right that allows football players to bash their brains into a concussed mush every Sunday or hikers to climb dangerous mountains with minimal equipment. Essentially, you have the right to do whatever you want with your own body, regardless of the certainty of negative consequences.

I realize there’s a difference between smoking and other reckless behavior. In theory, overeating is only harmful to the person doing it, while secondhand smoke will infect the innocent lungs of witless bystanders. However, the solution to protect nonsmokers without trampling on the rights of those who want to smoke is simple: keep smokers to designated areas where nonsmokers can avoid them. This fair compromise is the current system at SDSU, where there are 12 smoking areas, mostly on the edges of campus.

If the Academic Senate is concerned about the health of students because of reckless individuals, there are far more impactful things they could do, such as promoting safe driving. Every year, more than 30,000 people are killed in automobile accidents in the U.S., but where is the moral outrage about people who speed? Where are the Truth campaign-style videos calling out companies who promote cars that can go at unsafe speeds? Surely, commercials, movies and video games about BMWs and Mustangs flying down streets at 100 mph have as big an impact on the driving habits of young adults as cigarettes in media ever could. Yet the Academic Senate isn’t passing any resolutions to educate students and staff about the importance of driving at the speed limit. Maybe the senate is wondering how much of an impact the CSU could have on the driving habits of students or staff. My guess is it’s about the same impact a ban on smoking on campus would have on their health.

But this ban is about more than just about health. The resolution passed by the Academic Senate also lists the cost of tobacco use as more than $193 billion from health care costs and lost productivity, which sounds like a lot, until you consider that gross domestic product for the U.S. last year was $15.7 trillion. Traffic alone—because of lost time and fuel—cost $121 billion. If that’s not enough, car crashes cost the U.S. economy $300 billion a year in lost wages, medical costs and emergency services, according to CBS.

Clearly, tobacco is a serious issue, but not as dangerous as unsafe driving. However, it’s understandable for the Academic Senate not to want to promote the consumption of unsafe products on campus. But, it needs to realize allowing smoking in certain designated areas doesn’t equal endorsement or promotion. What it does show is the system’s ability to balance the needs of the majority with the rights of the minority.

This balance is the cornerstone of a functional democracy and it should be one of the guiding principles of the CSU. The current system of designated smoking areas provides an equitable balance; there’s no need to ban smoking all together. And if the Academic Senate is truly concerned about the effects of smoking, it can promote a campaign to encourage and aid students, staff and faculty in quitting the use of tobacco products. Better yet, let them tackle a more important issue such as speeding, drunk and unsafe driving.

It’s easy to pick on smokers and take away their rights in the name of health and the greater good. But the right thing to do is to realize smokers are part of the CSU community and they deserve the same rights as everyone else.