I Stand With Smokers

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source:  Green & Write, February 22, 2017

One of the earliest models of the policymaking process was known as the Rational Planning Model, in which policymakers behave as rational actors and proceed through a series of logical steps to produce public policy. First, policymakers identify a social problem. Then they search for solutions and, after weighing all possible alternatives and available evidence about their effectiveness, select the best one. The Rational Planning Model looks nice on paper, but in reality, the policymaking process is often inverted. It is not uncommon for policymakers to have a proposal in mind and then set out to invent problems their proposal can solve. Take for instance current Republican efforts to pass voter ID laws (see here, here, and here) in the name of stamping out voter fraud, a problem that research shows is virtually nonexistent. In cases like this, a policy solution (voter ID requirements) is offered where no problem exists and the real goals of the policy (voter suppression and the burdening of left-leaning minorities) are obfuscated by appeals to myths.

This phenomenon—“policies in search of problems”—is not unique to government. It is also problematic on college campuses, as demonstrated by the ever-growing list of campuses that are tobacco-free. Frequently, these bans appear to be imposed without any clear rationale or evidence that tobacco use was previously a problem harming the whole university community. Rather, proponents of these bans too often rely on incomplete reasoning, public ignorance, and even paranoia to wage a quiet assault on an increasingly besieged minority: tobacco users.

Michigan State University’s Tobacco Ban: A Solution to a Non-Problem?

This past August, Michigan State University (MSU) proudly became a tobacco-free campus. Prior to MSU’s tobacco ban, smoking had been banned inside all campus buildings and within 25 feet of building entrances. The new ban simply extended the smoking prohibition to all outdoor areas and simultaneously barred people from using smokeless tobacco products like chewing tobacco. It includes all people on campus at all times, including tailgaters on football Saturdays.

In the effort to stamp out tobacco use, MSU is actually a latecomer. According to the Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative, there are today 1,757 American colleges that are smoke-free, and of those, 1,468 are tobacco-free. The numbers continue to grow each month, and it is not inconceivable that one day all universities in America will be tobacco-free.

That tobacco use is dangerous to one’s health, no one can dispute.[1] But when any authority seeks to restrict individual behavior, whether it be speeding down the road or obtaining an abortion, that authority must demonstrate that the behavior being regulated poses a significant danger or cost to the whole community which warrants the restriction. That is, if we are going to curtail someone’s legal right to use tobacco, we have to demonstrate that that person’s tobacco use is sufficiently dangerous to others in the community, not just themselves. Otherwise, the exercise of power is excessive and invidious to the protection of individual liberty.

Unfortunately, universities like MSU have in many cases failed to clearly demonstrate these kinds of social costs when it comes to justifying their tobacco bans. In doing so, they have proceeded to enact regulations that unnecessarily infringe upon individual rights and in fact promote the stigmatization of valuable members of their communities.

From the get-go, MSU’s tobacco ban appears to have been a case of a “solution in search of a problem.” Simply put, the University provided no public evidence that the existing tobacco policy was inadequate or that exposure to tobacco products was a serious social problem on campus. In the lead-up to the ban there was of course ample discussion about the deleterious effects of tobacco on the health of users, but there was scant evidence that second-hand exposure to tobacco was directly causing significant harm to non-users and bystanders in the community.[2]

One possible explanation for this omission is that such a claim would have been nearly impossible to prove. Tobacco use was extremely rare on campus even before the recent ban took effect, and it is curious why the University even bothered at all. A 2016 survey by the American College Health Association found that only 10.6% of MSU students reported using cigarettes at all in the past month, and only 5.2% of students reported being regular users (i.e. using cigarettes 6 days or more in the past month). Furthermore, only 3% of students reported using smokeless tobacco, and only 1.4% reported being regular users. On a 5,200-acre campus, that amounts to roughly one regular smoker for every two acres as well as one regular smokeless tobacco user for every ten acres. By comparison, the use of other toxins was much more prevalent on campus. 17.4% of MSU students reported using marijuana (8.9% regular users) and over 70% reported using alcohol (33.8% regular users) in the past month. Prior to the ban, tobacco users formed such a small and diffuse community on our sprawling campus that when one local news station tried to find smokers to interview prior to the enactment of the ban, it reported, “It’s tough to even find smokers on campus.”

In other words, tobacco use was about as much of a problem on campus as getting too much sunshine in January. There was simply no practical need to replace the old tobacco policy with a newer, more draconian one. Nevertheless, the University proceeded.

The Flawed Second-Hand Smoke Rationale

But even if tobacco use had been a widespread fact of campus life, the University would still have had to demonstrate that tobacco represents a significant social danger to justify the curtailment of someone’s right to legally consume tobacco. This too would have been an incredibly difficult position to defend.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

One obvious justification for many university tobacco bans is that they promote community health by eliminating the risk of second-hand smoke from cigarettes. Cigarettes produce second-hand smoke that, when inhaled by bystanders, produces noxious health effects for non-users. Given this social cost (or “negative externality” as economists would refer to it), the government has a right to regulate smoking behavior.

This is an intuitively appealing argument, but it is also an increasingly untenable one as research mounts that the health risks of second-hand smoke, once believed to be extreme, have been wildly overblown and are in fact virtually negligible in the outdoor settings to which many of these bans apply. Put simply, research today shows that there are virtually no significant health risks that arise from brief exposure to second-hand smoke outdoors (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here). This might come as a shock to many of our readers who have been bombarded with anti-smoking advertisements for the better part of two decades, but it is an increasingly common conclusion in medical research. While some of the earliest research did suggest a correlational link between second-hand smoke exposure and health outcomes like heart attacks and lung cancer, much of this research has since been discredited for methodological flaws, such as using small sample sizes or including inadequate controls for existing health trends (see here). In contrast, some recent high-quality studies suggest that serious health problems emerge from second-hand smoke only if exposure to second-hand smoke is a long-term, high-concentration problem (see here). For instance, second-hand smoke is a danger if you live in the same house as a chain smoker for a long period of time. But simply getting a whiff of cigarette smoke while walking down the sidewalk is not a serious health danger. An annoyance, maybe, but certainly not the mortal health risk many people erroneously believe it is. And it is certainly not more dangerous than inhaling the exhaust fumes from all the SUVs that roam campus.

So let’s be frank. These tobacco bans are never just about improving the health of the community as a whole. They are also about sending a message to tobacco users (or people considering tobacco use) that they are not welcome and will be marginalized–socially and physically–from the campus community. “We want to promote the healthiest environment possible and make the statement that all tobacco use is unhealthy,” said University Physician Dr. David Weismantel when discussing the revised MSU ban. In doing so, he singled out tobacco users as a particularly nefarious kind of unhealthy person compared to other unhealthy people. He did not, for instance mention that consumption of Coca-Cola is unhealthy, or that eating the pizza in the university dining halls is unhealthy.  If the University is in the business of regulating individual health, it would appear to have much bigger health threats to address.

Banning Smokeless Tobacco

The intent to stigmatize tobacco users is made even more evident by the fact that chewing tobacco is included in many tobacco bans like the one at MSU. While a smoking ban can at least be justified by appealing to the erroneous but still widely held view that outdoor cigarette smoking produces a dangerous externality in the form of second-hand smoke, a chewing tobacco ban is indefensible along almost any standard. Simply put, no one else is personally at risk if I decide to put a wad of tobacco in my mouth. There is not a single sensible externality that can be identified. As such, it is not the business of the university to be regulating that behavior. If I want to chew tobacco, that is my right—just as it is my right to chew bubble gum. (And at least when I spit out my tobacco, it won’t get stuck in someone else’s shoe. Talk about a second-hand nuisance!).

Policies For Stigmatization

Another problem with these kinds of illiberal tobacco bans is that the people most affected by them—tobacco users—are rarely consulted. This appears to have been the case at MSU, where the task force charged with studying the tobacco ban was heavily weighted in favor of organizations opposed to smoking, including representatives from the MSU Anti-Cancer Society, The Healthy Campus Initiative, Student Health Services, and the Office of the University Physician. And while some general-purpose organizations such as the Council of Graduate Students or the Office of International Students would have carried forth the concerns of some constituents who use tobacco, it is doubtful that the concerns of smokers were ever given the full consideration they deserve. Almost 40% of MSU students reported being unaware that deliberations about a new tobacco policy were occurring in the first place, and even if they were aware, rising up to defend tobacco use is about as popular a position to take as defending child abuse. Tellingly, when a local news station tried to interview campus smokers when the policy was announced, none agreed to be interviewed on camera.

Additionally, there is some empirical evidence that senselessly restrictive tobacco bans can have harmful psychological effects on tobacco users, and they in fact foster divisive behavior within their communities. A recent study in the journal Sociology of Health and Wellness reported the results of interviews with 25 Vancouver smokers about their experiences living in a city with stringent anti-smoking laws. The results found that the tobacco laws, including those that banned smoking outdoors, led smokers to feel stigmatized and disempowered, and that the discrimination against them was much more socially acceptable than that toward other groups.

The researchers report that most smokers in Vancouver readily acknowledged the importance of smoking restrictions in enclosed spaces, but they believed that smoking restrictions in outdoor areas tended to go beyond the goal of protecting non-smokers. Rather, they felt that those laws were designed solely to erode their right to smoke and that they in fact enabled bystanders to openly judge them. Throughout the study, participants highlighted the discomfort they felt with smoking in public, even in places where they were allowed to smoke. They reported being subjected to negative comments from strangers as well as rude nonverbal actions that implied criticism of their smoking like fake coughing, nose holding, and overly dramatic hand waving. A number of interviewees also noted that people in their community feel it is acceptable to draw comparisons between the use of tobacco and illegal drugs and that it is not uncommon to hear people equate tobacco users with crackheads. As one participant stated, this can have a crippling effect on one’s identity: “Sometimes you really are being labeled as a bad person if you smoke.”

This research suggests that excessive tobacco bans like the ones recently enacted at MSU inherently stigmatize and enable the public shaming of people who choose to use tobacco. They implicitly cast tobacco users as social deviants—individuals who live dirty, reckless, unhealthy lives that need to be corrected. Such a social construction of tobacco users breeds a sense of social superiority on the part of some and a sense of social inferiority on the part of others, resulting in ridicule and condescension towards users. Yet, as many Europeans will attest, it is in fact quite possible to use tobacco and still be healthy, just like it is possible to drink alcohol and still be healthy. The poison is in the dose, not the toxin, and whether one chooses to poison their body with tobacco, alcohol, or sugar, they should not be treated any differently.


In conclusion, it is not a university’s job to police what legal substances I or anyone else chooses to consume. Tobacco-free university policies represent an unwarranted attack on individual liberty. They also undercut the mission of many universities to foster inclusive and caring communities insofar as they stigmatize and marginalize an unpopular but harmless minority. The preferences of the many should never be used to trounce the rights of a few, and universities, rather than proffering social policies that reinforce negative stereotypes, should work to create policies that overcome these stereotypes and respect the dignity and rights of all the members in their communities.

Contact David: dwc@msu.edu

**The author would like to note that he is not a smoker, although he did enjoy cigarettes five years ago when he lived in Paris for several months.

[1] Although whether tobacco is more dangerous than other toxins like sugar is debatable (see here, here, and here).

[2] One survey found that 70% of MSU students reported exposure to second-hand smoke within the past month on campus, but it did not ask if this exposure occurred in outdoor areas that would be affected by the new ban. This was a troubling omission because other research has found that most incidences of second-hand smoke exposure for college students tend to occur in indoor areas like homes and restaurants. It also did not ask about the severity or frequency of this exposure.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.