Comment & Analysis
Sep 26, 2018

A Tobacco-Free Campus Would Stigmatise Smokers

It's smokers' right to choose what they want to do with their bodies and a smoke-free campus would achieve very little, writes Alanna MacNamee.

Alanna MacNameeColumnist
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

I spent the best part of the summer working abroad in a bar without a smoking ban. The smell of cigarettes followed me everywhere: it worked itself into the fabrics of my clothes, overwhelmed even the strongest-smelling shampoos I washed my hair with. I was engaged in an infuriating – and perpetually losing – battle with the cigarette butts in the bar’s ashtrays. More than one customer burned my skin with their fag. I have never valued Ireland’s smoke-free bars more.

Despite this, I was completely opposed to Trinity College Dublin Student Union’s (TCDSU) proposed support for Tobacco Free Trinity. For those yet to return from a summer hiatus to the gripping world of College politics, Tobacco Free Trinity refers to the introduction of measures that would prohibit smoking indoors and outdoors on campus. Given that we already have an indoor smoking ban as well as designated no-smoking areas, what this will change is that smoking will not be permitted in any of the outside areas of campus at all. In a result that will have surprised precisely no one, the vast majority of our well-meaning student body (well, 1,453 of them) voted this week to support it.

Why would a non-smoker with a stated aversion to tobacco fumes such as myself oppose such an initiative? Well firstly, I’m not convinced that going “smoke-free” outdoors is going to achieve much. If it is out of concern for the health of non-smokers that motivates the proposal, then College may be misguided. A 2013 report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found no clear link between passive smoking and cancer. The study involved some 76,000 participants. Writing in the New York Times in 2011, Michael B Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University, acknowledged that no evidence demonstrates that the duration of outdoor exposure to cigarette smoke is long enough to cause substantial health damage. He further asserted that from a public health perspective, an outdoor ban is pointless.

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What of the annoyance of the smell, or the contamination of the air? I’m not convinced of this either. Vast quantities of fresh air abound in the outside areas of campus. In addition, campus is surely large enough that it isn’t hard to simply walk away from an offending party and thereby avoid intense exposure to smoke.

What of the annoyance of the smell, or the contamination of the air? I’m not convinced of this either

Interestingly, the proposed outdoor ban may not actually benefit the smokers among us either. There is evidence to suggest that it will not reduce smoker numbers. Despite the introduction of a smoking ban in the UK in 2007, there was no reduction in the smoking rate between 2007 and 2012, when vaping arrived on the scene. In France, the sales of cigarettes actually increased by 1,500 tonnes in the immediate aftermath of the introduction of a smoking ban. Introducing smoke-free zones may have decreased smoking on campus at Trinity, but there is no evidence to indicate that it has decreased smoking or smoker numbers among the college population.

I have a further, ideological problem with the ban. We are a third-level institution of higher education. As such, it’s pretty safe to assume that we have all attained a basic level of understanding and education, and that we all possess some degree of intelligence. I’d imagine that we are all aware of the many harms of smoking. Personally? I have no desire to increase my likelihood of getting cancer. I don’t actively seek to ruin my teeth and nails. I don’t court premature aging of my skin. But if you do? Well that’s entirely your prerogative – not mine. Your smoking in Front Square does much to harm you, but it does not impact negatively upon me.

This new ban looks a lot like discrimination from where I’m standing. It stigmatises smokers by driving them fully out the gates of Front Arch in what is tantamount to a public shaming

Banning smoking in College outright, I would argue, not only assumes we lack the facility to make an informed decision about what to legally put into our bodies. It actually takes away our freedom of choice. The College’s Health Promotion Officer, Martina Mullen, may have said that Trinity’s new no-smoking initiatives are “in line with government policy”. Still, it is not against the law to be unhealthy – not yet anyway. And until it is, Trinity needs to respect that it is an individual’s choice to be so.

Lastly, this new ban looks a lot like discrimination from where I’m standing. It stigmatises smokers by driving them fully out the gates of Front Arch in what is tantamount to a public shaming. And while I know smokers aren’t a group for whom one most readily feels sympathy, I think it’s worth noting that a study of smokers in Vancouver, Canada spoke of how the stigma and judgment they experienced made them feel judged as to their very identity as human beings. Furthermore, the study suggested that the state was effectively attempting to shame its citizens into not smoking.

Like it or not, the fact remains: smoking is legal. While this remains the case, I don’t think it’s fair to potentially inflict mental hurt on those who choose to smoke by stigmatising them for their habit. After all, not all harms are physical.

So while students have voted to support the Tobacco Free Trinity initiative, I’m hopeful that College will think twice before it puts the plan into action. There are lots of other, more pressing issues relating to student health. Let’s address those first.

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