Smoke-Free Policy Infringes on Students’ Right to Choose

Alexander Ekman, Contributing Writer

At the end of last semester, I started noticing posters in more and more parts of campus. They were full-color photos of Rick Santorum at a podium labeled “NO SMOKING” with no other text. My friends and I spent some time trying to figure out what they meant as the posters multiplied. The argument seemed to be that the anti-tobacco policy movement has rationale in common with the pro-choice movement: Mandating whether or not people can smoke is wrong for the same reasons restrictions on reproductive freedom are.

Anti-choice legislation and anti-smoking policies do have something in common. They are both restrictions on what someone can do with their body. But there is a crucial difference. The debate over whether abortion should be legal is centered on whether or not fetuses deserve the same rights as living human beings. When it comes to smoking, the same issues are not up for debate; people affected by secondhand smoke are manifestly people.

In theory, the policy the College has right now accounts for that by partitioning smokers away from where secondhand smoke will filter into buildings or places people congregate. But in practice, it’s not working. Even if the policy were perfectly implemented, I’ve never talked to someone who knows how far 30 feet is off the top of their head. I’ve never seen a smoker that far from a building, either.

Of course, this is anecdotal. Maybe I just have bad luck: the clusters of people smoking outside of King before class; the time I walked home to find a handful of people sitting on the steps of my dorm smoking; the people who, when the rules were pointed out to them, moved 10 feet away and then stopped.

The tobacco-free campus policy goes much further than that.

The Office of Student Wellness isn’t exactly being subtle on its official website about its hope that the new policy will convince people to quit smoking. But keeping people from smoking anywhere on campus is both impractical and unreasonable. Smoking is an addiction, and forcing people to quit, at least to me, is a step too far. In that sense, the comparison between the policy and Santorum is sound: Attempting to force people to quit smoking against their will is an incursion on their rights by the College.

But a central tenet of the prochoice movement can be summarized as follows, courtesy of an unknown author: “Your rights end where my body begins.” This could look like it means preventing people from smoking is an infringement of their rights. But as long as smoking means exhaling more than water vapor, anyone who does it is endangering my life. As long as secondhand smoke is an issue, the choice to smoke around others isn’t only an exercise of the right to decide what to do with one’s own body, it’s a decision that inhibits the people around the smoker from making that same choice.

I’m an extreme example, since most people don’t have severe respiratory illnesses. But if someone’s actions are crossing the boundary of only affecting them when they smoke near me, that is true for anyone. Where their right to choose what to do with their bodies, or mine, ends can’t be different on a case-by-case basis. The consequences for me are clearer, but everyone’s rights are —need to be—the same.

My reasons here are perfectly selfish and obviously emotionally motivated — and that shouldn’t be bad. Claiming to make an argument entirely unaffected by personal experience and emotional involvement is dishonest. Of course I care about something that affects me personally, for the same reason that smokers care about it.

I think the smoke-free campus policy is going to backfire due to being overkill, and I don’t know if it can be fixed. The role of the College can’t be to violate anyone’s ability to choose what to do with their bodies — that’s exactly as inappropriate as it sounds. However, that doesn’t just mean letting smokers choose whether or not to kick the habit. It also means ensuring that their decisions don’t keep other people from being able to make their own choices. As of right now, I know our current policy isn’t enough. My safety depends on other people’s choices, and judging by how that’s gone so far, this is not something I can afford any more.