Butt out, or Why Smoking Bans are Problematic

My campus sits on the precipice, looking down the slippery slope of instituting a smoking ban, or, at the least, creating smoking areas that are so inconvenient and uncomfortable smokers are effectively banned from campus. On it’s surface, this sounds like a fine idea. After all, as we ALL know, the science is clear–second-hand smoke kills!

Unless it doesn’t. Certainly, smoking (first-hand) makes one susceptible to various illnesses and increases the possibility one might get cancer. (Remember–it increases the possibility: it doesn’t guarantee cancer. That’s a lot like telling people not wearing a seat belt increases the possibility of getting killed in a car crash. But correlation is not causation.)

But the science on second-hand smoke is far from conclusive and the science of second-hand smoke on outdoor environments is almost non-existent. In other words, I can fully understand banning smoking in a classroom where there is a captive audience and exposure is direct. This is an issue of comfort and consideration. (However, while the barn door is open and the horses are already gone, city government bans on smoking in business constitute an incredible over-reach of power.)

Consider my son’s junior high science experiment. One night at the supper table, I was ranting and raving about seat-belt laws (it’s not the government’s job to tell me to wear a seat-belt. One of the true human rights in this world should be the ability to be a total doofus) and segued into smoking bans. Note that junior high boys are prone to wearing Axe body spray in disproportionate volumes. Smell, and the impact of that odor, necessarily dissipates in larger spaces. As my wife and I struggled to taste our food in the presence of an overpowering, eye-watering chemical explosion that makes me wonder how they think angels will fall from heaven just to be near someone wearing this stuff , I pointed out that if we made him sit in his bedroom, we might be able to taste the food. Why? Because there is more not-Axe in the air and that overpowers the Axe. Thus, a science fair project was born.

We gathered three different sized tanks, attached gauze to a stick, and rigged up a hose so we could blow cigarette smoke into the various sized tanks. He would then measure the change in the gauze to determine how space impacted the concentration of smoke. Fortunately, I have plenty of friends who smoke and were willing to blow into a straw. (No one in my family smokes–cigarettes are too expensive and the cost would detract from my other vices.)

It worked just like you might imagine. The smaller the space, the dirtier the gauze. Not scientific enough for you? Fortunately, my son also did his due diligence and read his science. I won’t provide the References page here, but suffice it to say, one the major problems with the “second-hand smoke kills” idea is that it treats all second-hand smoke the same. In other words, too many people (including the Surgeon General of the United States) acted like the husband/wife who lived in close proximity with a smoker for 45 years (a person who might smoke 4 packs a day) was exactly the same as the student who walks past her English professor once a day for 5 seconds. (By the way, check out Dr. Terry Simpson or John Stossell regarding the myth of second-hand smoke for some interesting information.)

My son, by the way, didn’t win or advance in the science fair competition. I’m sure it reflected the quality of the project not the nature of the project.

I don’t want to treat the issue of smoking lightly. I have some sympathy for companies who are providing health care (or paying large portions of health benefits) incentivizing or even restricting smoking. That’s clearly an economic issue and business owners should have power to make those decisions (and live with any negative consequences). We know, scientifically and logically, that there are direct and negative impacts from smoking that have an influence on the individual engaged in the activity.

But we can’t let bad science and minor inconveniences impose their will on the civil liberties we must protect. One of the most important roles a university should have is a willingness to take unpopular stands in the name of the greater good. We are bound by a necessary desire to seek the truth and we must teach our students to think critically, and, as Anonymous notes in an essay in Inside Higher Ed, we must teach  “our students to differentiate between significant risks (such as smoking) and totally insignificant risks (such as secon hand smoke outdoors).  We should be teaching our students to deconstruct misleading government and advocacy group statements, such as the claim that ‘these is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.’ By such criteria, there is no safe level of exposure to sunlight either.”

If we aren’t careful, we might have to buy our Axe and perfume from some black market dealer in an alley behind the science building. He’ll have a separate stand for donuts and snickers bars, also, because the ban against over-eating and it’s second-hand impact can’t be far behind.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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