Smoking Crisis Demands Tobacco Ban, Social Justice

Machmud Makhmudov

Last week, The Oberlin Review published a column (“Smoking Ban Proposal Infringes on Freedoms,” The Oberlin Review, Nov. 15, 2013) penned by Aaron Pressman in response to a column that I wrote the previous week (“Tobacco-Free Policy Would Reaffirm Campus Values,” The Oberlin Review, Nov. 8, 2013). I would like to thank the author for his honesty and enthusiasm. I hope that my response sufficiently addresses the concerns that he raises.

In his column, the author writes, “The current ban on smoking inside and in the immediate vicinity of buildings does plenty to protect those who do not wish to be around smoke for extended periods of time”; I interpret this as implying that the only way that individuals can be adversely affected in a smoking area is by the negative health effects of secondhand smoke. I would kindly request that the author also consider how a pervasive smoking culture — whether relegated to designated smoking zones or not — affects those attempting to quit.

Studies done by the Center for Disease Control demonstrate that 69 percent of smokers desire to quit, but only 25 percent of those who use medication in the process are able to do so. For those who don’t use medication, the success rate for quitting falls to 5 percent. Anybody who is interested in verifying the validity of this study can simply Google “smoking quitting rates.”

Why is this relevant? Environment and culture play a tremendous role in an individual’s ability to quit smoking. Having a campus overblown with cigarette smoke makes it much more likely for those who are in the quitting process to succumb to the temptation of old habits. Do we really want to stack the deck even more against those who are already fighting against chemical addiction? In my opinion, a compassionate Oberlin should be lending a hand to those attempting to quit smoking by fostering a supportive and healthy environment that isn’t conducive to relapsing into old habits.

The author also states that my argument of tobacco use as a social justice concern is “completely irrelevant” and “has absolutely no relevance to the issue at hand.” Respectfully, I could not disagree more. Understanding my argument simply involves a comparison of successful quitting rates for those who use cessation medication versus those who don’t. As mentioned earlier, those numbers are 25 percent to 5 percent, respectively.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that access to cessation products plays a tremendous role in the quitting process. Unfortunately, these products are not cheap, and the effects of that are apparent. As I mentioned in my previous article, there is a clear correlation between income level and smoking rates, as demonstrated by studies also conducted by the CDC. The proposal under discussion to make Oberlin a tobacco-free campus includes the provision that cessation products be made available at a discounted rate.

I’m not sure what the author thinks, but my definition of social justice states that nobody should be denied the opportunity to live a healthy life due to their financial circumstances. Frankly, I think that it is morally irresponsible to understand that certain groups of people have a higher propensity to smoke — a habit we know is harmful — and simultaneously continue perpetuating a culture that pressures people to smoke.

I would like to thank the author once again for his sincerity. He has brought up several important matters to consider. I would also, however, caution him and others not to lose themselves in an esoteric thought exercise when considering this issue. Let’s talk about the stakes that are actually at play. Are we really a campus that values life so little that we allow it to wither away slowly around us, person by person, life by life, while most of us walk by with indifference?

Are we really a campus that is hypocritical enough to champion ourselves as stewards of the environment while refusing to take a stand on an industry that dumps 1.69 billion pounds of toxic waste onto the Earth every year?

Are we really a campus that is so callous to one another that we refuse to accept the responsibility that we have to ensure that everybody, regardless of income, has access to an environment that supports their decision to quit a habit?

My answer is no. Oberlin’s legacy calls on us to live up to an authentic sense of compassion and recognize the fragile beauty of every life. Mostly, it calls on us not to be silent during the everlasting struggle for justice that defines our institution and its spirit.

Every year, an Oberlin first-year picks up the habit of smoking. Every year, as some of us know too well, loved ones are lost and lives are torn apart by those entirely preventable deaths. Sadly, their voices will now forever be silent, save for one harrowing, echoing question: Will you remain silent, or will you take a stand?