Monday, November 16, 2009

Tobacco Prohibition on American College Campuses

The pernicious and unmistakable march toward tobacco prohibition in the United States continues. It is especially depressing that many of the nation’s colleges and universities, institutions that promote themselves as bastions of tolerance and diversity, have implemented not just indoor smoking bans (which have a solid scientific rationale) and outdoor smoking bans (which have virtually no scientific rationale), but universal bans of all tobacco products.

Recently the University of Montana announced that it will impose a school-wide tobacco ban in 2011. The measure is the brainchild of a tobacco task force of misinformed public health activists such as Kari Harris, an associate professor of public health at the university. She said that the ban includes smokeless tobacco because just banning smoking would give students the message that it's safer to use other forms of tobacco. Harris concluded: “Is that the message we want to send?” Heaven forbid an institution of higher learning should provide students accurate information about tobacco use, one of the most important public health issues of our time.

University officials feigned concern over this draconian proposal. Linda Green, director of health enhancement at UM and a Tobacco Task Force member, said she expects - and wants - to hear plenty from students, even if it's outrage. “This is new territory for us… We want to hear their concerns,” she said.

Here are my concerns...

Why are university officials eager to ban smokeless tobacco, a product that is about as safe to use as an automobile?

How can the university enforce a ban on modern smokeless tobacco products, many of which are spit-free and invisible? Will campus police employ tobacco-sniffing dogs at security checkpoints? Will faculty and staff conduct random mouth checks before university lectures? How will the University of Montana resolve the inherent discrepancy between the tobacco ban and its policy on alcohol use (available here), a far more dangerous product?

A comprehensive national review of alcohol use among college students found that 42% (3.8 million) consumed 5 or more drinks on an occasion in the past month. Thirty-one percent of college students (2.8 million) admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol in the past year.

The review also found that over 500,000 college students are unintentionally injured every year because of alcohol and more than 600,000 were hit or assaulted by another drinking student. In total, over 1,700 college students died from alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents and other injuries.

Tobacco prohibition has been endorsed by many colleges and universities. The American College Health Association recommends that institutions of higher learning take the following position “because the improvements to health can be so significant”: Tobacco use is prohibited on all college and university grounds, college/university owned or leased properties, and in campus-owned, leased, or rented vehicles.”

For all the reasons noted above, and more importantly because alcohol consumption is illegal for about three-quarters of undergraduate college-age students, I asked the ACHA whether it had a position on alcohol. According to its communications coordinator, “ACHA does not have any recommendations or a position statement regarding alcohol use on campus.”

In summary, there is virtually no legitimate basis for American colleges and universities to prohibit the use of smokeless tobacco products. Furthermore, the imposition of tobacco bans are feel-good measures by and for health nannies, who neither have the means nor the fortitude to tackle far more important health risks facing our nation’s college population.

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