Blowing smoke: Campus smoking bans pointless

By Stephen Caruso / Columnist

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I am not trying to disprove the dangers of secondhand smoke. Facts are facts.

I am not attempting to show that there is no connection between cancer and smoking or that secondhand smoke is harmless. It’s not the ‘60s — I’m not funded by the tobacco industry, and I have a soul [citation needed].

However, groups that adopt bans for the sake of public health are encroachments on our freedom as individuals to engage in whatever behavior we wish. That is unless science can be prove that smokers harm others in an empirical fashion.

I’m not arguing to remove smoking bans that are already in place — they are fine as is. What makes secondhand smoke dangerous is the ubiquity of smoking, especially indoors. Without a constant flow of air, the smoke will never dissipate, passing the effects on to everyone who breathes it, and any government, of which there are still some, that hasn’t banned indoor smoking in bars and restaurants because of secondhand smoke concerns is oblivious. That includes Pittsburgh. Indoor smoking is the perfect externality. Those who enter a smoking establishment, as employees or customers, are going to have to deal with the effect of tobacco smoke, even if a smoker isn’t present. 

My problem is with the recent popular movement among colleges to ban smoking on campus. In fact, 1,478 colleges have banned smoking anywhere on campus, including outdoors, as of Oct. 1, 2014.

I’m sure administrators mean well, but, while science backs up bans on indoor smoking, outdoor smoking is much more dubious. A study by the University of Georgia showed that levels of cotinine, a by-product of tobacco smoke, were higher in those sitting in crowded outdoor areas with smoking. However, these levels still fell within “background” levels and were, therefore, basically an inconsequential level of air pollution, as defined by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. 

A similar study by Stanford University showed that being near a smoker in a stationary open-air area, like a café, increases levels of PM2.5, a measure of microscopic particles that can cloud the lungs. But moving just six feet away from the smoker makes exposure negligible. Unlike indoors, where cigarette smoke cannot disperse anywhere and stays around for everyone to inhale, the smoke simply disperses throughout the air outside.

What this all means is that walking through a single puff of cigarette smoke once a day is part of the normal background of air pollution everyone breathes in regularly. PM2.5 does not only come from cigarette smoke. To quote the Stanford study, it is present from “wood burning stoves, diesel engines and other forms of combustion.” That means the bus exhaust, which everyone breathes in just as much as that lone puff from a passing smoker, is just as dangerous.

Moves against outdoor smoking seem more a product of overzealous regulation than a real concern for public health. 

Universities and the government should provide free nicotine patches, gum, lozenges and other resources to kick the habit for all smokers who are trying to quit. To its credit, Pitt already has a QUIT program that does this, but more institutions must provide these resources. New York state used such a program in 2005 to help smokers quit, resulting in a 20 percent success rate, as compared to the 7 percent rate for those trying without help. The program cost $464 per individual who quit smoking. 

These results should have every state engaging in such programs, yet only seven have them, including Pennsylvania, New York and Kentucky. This needs to change. The cost for a 71-year-old lung cancer patient to get six months of treatment ranges from $2,500 to $9,300. This makes $464 a bargain, regardless of success rate. This low price could be covered by allocating more money from tobacco taxes to control of tobacco. Currently, only 1.9 percent of the $25 billion collected by states in taxes and legal settlements goes back into tobacco programs. This must change.

The first issue I bring up is a matter of degree. Is it arbitrary to say smoking inside is bad — but smoking outside is fine — if both do produce some degree of secondhand exposure? Also, what are the rights of a bar owner to look at the risks and make his or her bar smoking or non-smoking? Couldn’t the health conscious simply avoid the place? Yes, but let us do a cost-benefit analysis. Is the overall “price” of the choice to be a smoking or non-smoking establishment greater than the $6 billion in secondhand smoke related costs? No. 

What about the $6 billion weighted against the choice to be able to smoke a cigarette outside, when the science shows it is far less likely to cause sickness in a non-smoker? I would say yes. Not being able to smoke inside is an inconvenience. Not being able to smoke outside, as well, would effectively remove the behavior unless you own private property. 

It is tough to decide where one’s personal freedom ends and where society’s damage begins, but let us at least have an in-depth discussion on it before we ban anything altogether. 

Write to Stephen at sjc79@pitt.edu.

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