Some evenings, as I’m walking home from class, I decide to take a shortcut up the stairs that wind through Carlow’s campus to shorten the trip home.
There are a few noticeable differences between Carlow and Pitt: the size, the architecture, the religious imagery. But one of the most noteworthy features dotting the map of the 1,399-student private school is the signs scattered across campus declaring Carlow to be a tobacco- and smoke-free campus, with violators subject to a $25 fine.
Pitt Student Government Board proposed a similar policy last year, but the resolution was dropped. SGB voted Tuesday on whether to apply for a $20,000 grant which would provide funds to educate students about the harmful effects of smoking, with the ultimate goal of creating a “smoke-free or tobacco-free campus policy.”
According to SGB Wellness Committee Chair Malcolm Juring, the enforcement of the policy would be “the responsibility of the community. In other words, no one would be issued a citation or fine for smoking on campus.”
A policy of community enforcement sounds like it could have one of two results: either the policy goes unenforced for the most part or it leads to a further shunning of a completely personal decision.
Regardless, Pitt shouldn’t ban smoking, especially by community enforcement. With a few exceptions in some states, most individuals over the age of 18 have a legal right to buy and use tobacco products in the United States. And while it is undisputed that smoking is harmful to individual and public health, smoking is still a very personal decision. Nobody has a right to judge or condemn people based on the choices they make regarding their own health — the inevitable result of a full-on ban.
Of course, smoking on campus does have an effect that other substances don’t: secondhand smoke. But whether we look at that problem from a basis of improving safety or comfort, a campus smoking ban would fall short of actually solving it.
Claims that secondhand smoke is the worst source of harmful carcinogens in a city don’t completely line up with research from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Kurt Straif, the section head of the IARC, told CBS that exposure to diesel exhaust is “on the same order of magnitude as passive smoking” in cancer-related danger.
Banning diesel engines in cities would affect people’s health as much as a smoke ban, but would never be up for consideration.
City-dwellers would be right to call for tighter diesel emissions regulations, but such a policy is more comparable to designated smoking and non-smoking areas — still allowed, just restricted. Designated non-smoking areas would have to be tightly defined and well-monitored in order to ensure compliance, much like emissions bans.
The ban wouldn’t just be difficult to enforce, it would also be difficult to follow. According to Juring, the policy would only apply to Pitt property, not city or privately owned property.
Yet, on some of the most familiar places on campus — Fifth and Forbes avenues — privately owned businesses intermix with city-owned Health Department buildings, while scattered among them are various University-owned buildings, such as the PantherExpress Payments building on Atwood Street. How could a blanket smoking ban ever fit well into the complexity of this urban jigsaw puzzle?
Other legal substances, including alcohol, are not banned on Pitt’s campus, because the University recognizes that many students have a legal right to drink— even if it affects their health. With some limitations, students who are of legal age to purchase and consume alcohol may do so here at Pitt. And with the exception of first-year housing, students are allowed to bring alcohol in several on-campus dorms.
Alcohol is a leading cause of death among college students, making it a much more harmful drug than nicotine or tobacco as it applies to our age group. But Pitt continues to allow some alcohol use on campus out of respect for a person’s legal right to drink. If alcohol use isn’t facing scrutiny, legal tobacco use certainly shouldn’t be either.
Appeals to non-smokers’ comfort also fail to make a convincing argument. Fresh, comfortable air isn’t a right in a city, nor something we should expect. If I’m seeking fresh air, I’ll go to Schenley Plaza, or Schenley Park — designated non-smoking areas where the policy is well enforced.
These policies are amenable to all, as is the enforcement of city laws that prohibit smoking within 15 feet of a building entrance. A compromise exists in the possible expansion and stricter enforcement of non-smoking areas.
Some arguments against a smoke-free campus rest on more convoluted concerns about students leaving campus to smoke and being assaulted. Others worry about the traffic resulting from more students driving off-campus.
But you shouldn’t need to reach that far to see why Pitt shouldn’t ban smoking on campus. It’s within an adult’s right to purchase and consume tobacco in Pennsylvania, regardless of where they live. And if that basic right isn’t enough, the logistical implications of a smoke-free campus make it obvious that it simply isn’t feasible.
Campus smoking bans don’t and shouldn’t work. It’s time we let them go, in favor of a more nuanced, fairer approach that gives space for both smokers and non-smokers. We need to balance respect for individuals’ choices regarding their health and the accommodation of personal preference — all that takes is a more nuanced approach.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this column published Feb. 9, stated that Malcolm Juring was a member of the Student Government Board. Juring is SGB Wellness Committee Chair. The Pitt News regrets this error.