Campus Tobacco-Free Policy Protects, Expands Upon Individual Rights

Machmud Makhmudov, Columnist

On April 27, Student Senate passed a resolution endorsing the adoption of a tobacco-free campus policy that includes provisions such as the exclusion of Tappan Square from the ban and allowing the use of e-cigarettes in outdoor spaces. This event serves as a benchmark for — though certainly not the culmination of — a campus-wide conversation that has been ongoing for seven years, but was amplified significantly this year.

Though Student Senate and the Tobacco Subcommittee of the Office of Student Wellness have worked hard to promote dialogue about the policy this year, confusion still exists within the campus community with regard to the motivations and implications of the policy.

An op-ed letter in last week’s copy of the Review, penned by College first-year Alexander Ekman, articulates many of the misperceptions surrounding the proposed policy (“Smoke-Free Policy Infringes on Students’ Right to Choose,” May 2, 2014). For the purpose of full disclosure, I am a member of Student Senate and the Tobacco Subcommittee. Ekman makes reference to posters placed around campus last semester by the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians that featured Rick Santorum, among other figures.

The posters implied that a tobacco-free policy would infringe on an individual’s right to choose, drawing a direct comparison to a woman’s right to choose with regard to issues of personal health. Not only is this comparison unwarranted, the charge that the proposed policy would limit individual rights is simply untrue. In fact, the proposed policy protects and expands upon individual rights.

The proposed policy does not compel students, faculty or staff to quit smoking. Instead, it limits the areas in which tobacco use is permitted in order to protect the individual right to living, working and learning in a healthy environment. Ekman mentions that several members of the Oberlin community suffer from health conditions that become exacerbated due to the ample amount of secondhand smoke on campus. I have seen friends and others have asthma attacks right in front of me because of secondhand smoke on campus. Why aren’t the rights of these students, faculty and staff considered when groups or individuals on campus advocate for freedom and individual rights?

Oberlin has a history of affirming liberty by recognizing the importance of individual rights. At the same time, our character speaks to the truth that while we must fight tooth and nail to protect those rights, we must also never forget that we also have a collective responsibility to serve and strengthen our communities. This means ensuring that everybody has the opportunity to live, work and study in a healthy environment where secondhand smoke and its affiliated negative side effects are avoidable.

I am proud of the resolution that Student Senate passed because it specifically sets aside Tappan Square as a zone where the tobacco-free policy would not be implemented. The exemption was drafted in consideration of the policy’s potential effects on the town of Oberlin and its citizens, as well as the need for a convenient space where anybody could smoke if they so choose.

This compromise is the result of a fruitful conversation that occurred between the subcommittee, students, community members, faculty and staff this year. The collaborative effort has yielded a policy that was inclusive in its formation and is considerate of all members of the campus and town community in its current form. As I have written before, there isn’t another school in the world like Oberlin. As I finish my second year here, I have thought a lot about how the decisions that we continuously make affirm our identities as both individuals and a community. Oberlin, more than any other institution that I’ve ever encountered, is very conscious of how the choices that we make echo down the hallways of history.

I’m very proud of our Student Senate for standing up for a healthier, more considerate, more compassionate and environmentally friendly Oberlin.