College, Senate Must Clarify Underpinnings of Proposed Tobacco Ban

The Editorial Board

Oberlin students aren’t known to sit idly by when issues of personal liberty are at stake — which is why Student Senate’s upcoming vote on a campus-wide ban on tobacco products has raised a flurry of opinions from supporters and detractors, smokers and non-smokers alike. Should the College adopt the policy, in summer 2016, Oberlin would join more than 1,200 colleges and universities across the country who have prohibited smoking on college-owned property.

But no matter your opinion on the ban, an ignored yet urgent philosophical question resides at the center of this debate. This question is perhaps best illustrated in what seems to be a little-known facet of the proposed ban: its possible inclusion of e-cigarettes, vaporizers and water pipes alongside cigarettes. In contrast with traditional tobacco products, there is minimal data available on the health effects of e-cigs on their users. Even less data exists on the negative consequences for those in the same airspace as e-smokers. Currently, the FDA and medical researchers are rushing to find answers about this burgeoning cultural phenomenon, while federal and state legislators are scrambling to understand the potential effects of these products.

What’s more, the implications of e-cigs extend beyond health concerns. Many politicians and activists are frustrated with the potential of the black and blue apparatuses to undo decades of successful antismoking campaigning. Others fear the lost state tax dollars as a result of a decrease in cigarette sales, prompting some legislators to concoct new schemes for e-cig taxation. This plan is rejected by those who say e-cigs’ relatively low price is a key component in their effectiveness as a cessation product. Still others argue that any evidence supporting their benefits for cessation is inconclusive at best, and that data instead shows that youth have started using e-cigs as a gateway to conventional cigarettes.

Clearly, more research on e-cigs is urgently necessary. But as of now, there’s no reason to consider e-cigarettes or vaporizers a health concern in the same way we consider secondhand smoke from traditional cigarettes one. As such, it is dishonest to include e-cigs in the campus ban with other tobacco products when vague health concerns are the only justification.

The issue comes down to this: Is the ban an attempt by the College to limit non-smokers’ exposure to the secondhand effects of a particular lifestyle choice, or is it a paternalistic policy instituted as a means of protecting us from our own choices? The former is a solid argument for a proposed ban; the latter is a serious reconfiguration of the College administration’s relationship to the student body — and to students’ bodies. Although the question of personal liberty can be (and has been) legitimately posed regarding conventional cigarettes, the issue is more starkly apparent with e-cigs. While secondhand smoke as a public health concern provides an independent reason for tobacco’s eradication, these arguments do not extend to e-cigs, vaporizers or, for that matter, chewing tobacco.

Whether or not e-cigs are addressed by Senate’s proposed ban or the College’s will be telling as to the impetus for this ban. With their inclusion, the ban would appear to stem from a prescriptive attitude toward student habits rather than a desire to limit the effects of smoking to those who choose to partake.