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Clearing the Air: Macalester College weighs in on the smoking ban

The new tobacco-free campus policy was instituted January 1, 2015, seemingly without a hassle. Though the administration has been easing campus towards a complete ban for several years, some students have objections to the policy.

The Tobacco Use on Campus Task Force, formed in 2010 under the supervision of Vice President of Student Affairs Laurie Hamre, involved students, staff and faculty in investigating avenues of gradually restricting tobacco-use on campus. Since 2010, the committee planned that Macalester would eventually become tobacco-free.

Even with the community-based construction of the task force, some argue that the tobacco-free policy was instituted in a top-down fashion. James Lindgren ’15 does not smoke, but believes the tobacco-free policy infringes on student rights, particularly because first-years and sophomores are required to live on campus.

Vanessa Barrera ’15, a regular smoker, objects to the policy because “it was very undemocratically imposed on the student body and there wasn’t a vote or anything… that’s a little bit questionable given the value[s] of this institution.” She added, “The school has decided … that smoking shouldn’t be happening on this campus, and so it’s just pushed on the people who do smoke. It’s not a lot of people, but it’s a significant community.”

Sean D’Amico ’15 does not smoke regularly, but has friends who do. He said, “The whole ‘share-the-air’ thing just seems very misguided. It’s not really sharing … [only] one group is actually benefiting.”

Lindgren said, “We’re taking into account more the people who aren’t being impacted at all than the people who are being impacted a lot.” He added, “It’s a slippery slope to start banning and prohibiting certain student behaviors that we in a majority sense see as sinful or bad. … There are members of this community that have the same right to be part of our community as anyone else. [Smokers] are being actively excluded.”

Hamre had a different opinion. “The number of students that smoke … has diminished so much that it seemed like the right time to go smoke-free. It really wasn’t infringing that much on that many students’ rights and if you look at the majority of students it was helping them,” she said.

According to the National College Health Assessment taken in February of 2015, eight percent of Macalester students responded that they had used a tobacco product at least once in the last thirty days. The daily rate was less than one percent, about 20 students total.

A third argument is that the policy is an institutional criticism of students who smoke. Barrera said, “[The policy]’s community enforced, which is even worse … they’ve sort of told the other members of the community that they should be policing my behavior … I don’t think that builds community; I think that pushes people apart.”

Hamre addressed the issue of enforcement; she said, “I don’t know that we’re ever going to ask students to … ‘police’ their peers. But peer pressure is not bad.” Hamre said that security is able to address issues with tobacco-use on campus if need be.

Lindgren is concerned that leaving enforcement to the discretion of security or authority figures opens the college up to various levels of discrimination. He said, “I would need to be assured that they’re writing up every single person they see that’s smoking, not just certain individuals.”

D’Amico said, “Cigarette smoking is already heavily stigmatized, so taking a shot at cigarette smokers is an easy thing to do, but also no one’s really going to criticize them for it.”

Hamre said, “We’re not going to shame people that do smoke. Macalester folks are adults; they can decide if they want to or not,” adding, “We’re not telling people that they can or cannot use tobacco. That is their right. But we are saying that if they choose to do that it shouldn’t infringe on others’ rights.”

Lisa Broek, of Health and Wellness and a member of the task force, said, “We don’t really like to use the word ‘ban,’ because we’re not stopping anyone from smoking or using tobacco. We’re just saying that on our campus, we’re tobacco-free.”

A final concern is that the policy is solely about image and being on a list of tobacco-free schools. Lindgren believes the policy actually embarrasses the college, citing how campus tours are told the school is tobacco-free, while visitors could easily spot someone smoking on campus. “Just admit … they’re doing it because they want to say that they’re a smoke-free campus,” Lindgren said.

“It might be symbolically important to ban smoking on campus and show how forward-thinking we are, but again it’s not universally beneficial for everyone on campus,” D’Amico said.

The administration seems to recognize the image-related aspects of going tobacco-free. Denise Ward of Health and Wellness and Chair of the Tobacco-Free Task Force, wrote in an email, “The move to tobacco free is reflective of where most colleges and universities are moving and I’m glad that Macalester recognized the importance of the change. It more accurately reflects the values of our community.”

A MCSG representative on the Task Force, Caroline Duncombe ’18 said, “It’s a good thing that Macalester campus is becoming smoke-free … many colleges around the U.S. have been doing it and it’s something that we were behind in and now we’re not.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there are currently over 1,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. that are smoke- or tobacco-free. Even if there are objections to the policy at first, Hamre expects students will adjust and the prevalence of smoking will decrease at Macalester. She said, “By next year it will seem like [the policy]’s always been here.” Hamre understands the policy is inconvenient for some students. “It isn’t going to be easy for some folks,” adding, “But we’re pretty committed to making this work … we really think it’s the right thing to do.”

More information on the tobacco-free policy is available at macalester.edu/tobaccofree/.

April 24, 2015

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