Op-ed: A ban on tobacco and vaping will make the campus less healthy

As a never-smoker who’s lost loved ones to gruesome diseases directly caused by smoking, I’ve always been interested in and enthusiastic about initiatives to assist smokers trying to live healthier lives. The recently announced plan to make Tufts a ‘tobacco-free’ campus will hurt them more than it helps them, and will be of little benefit to anyone else.

Let’s start with the pros. Tufts Tobacco Free claims that a campus-wide ban will improve the success of smokers attempting to quit, as they will have less temptation to light up. They are probably right in that several studies have shown a reduction in intention to smoke on campuses with smoking bans compared to those without. It’s unclear, however, whether this translates to any improvement in the long-term quit rate, or if it just means people smoke more elsewhere.

A ban may also reduce non-smokers’ exposure to second-hand smoke and the resulting health effects. However, we already have reasonable restrictions on smoking around campus buildings that make it easy for those who wish to avoid smoke to do so.

How about the cons? First off, some smokers have weighed the costs and benefits and decided that smoking is worth it. For them, being banned from smoking anywhere on campus is a big nuisance. Second, adding any restriction on people’s behavior requires time and money for enforcement. Tufts Tobacco Free claims that TUPD would not be enforcing the ban; they have not made it clear who would. If nobody does then it’s not a ban and shouldn’t be called one. Third, as a matter of principle, restrictions on what responsible adults put in their bodies should only be made if there is a compelling aim that cannot be achieved in another, less intrusive way.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether the above pros and cons imply that a ban is desirable or not. The proposed policy, however, goes much further. In addition to forbidding smoking, Tufts Tobacco Free aims to ban the use of both smokeless tobacco products, like chewing tobacco and snus, and vapor products and e-cigarettes, which contain no tobacco (and sometimes not even nicotine).

The use of smokeless tobacco and vapor products is widely considered much less harmful than smoking since the user avoids ingesting tar and carbon monoxide, which together are responsible for the majority, if not all, of the health problems attributed to smoking. Both are commonly used by smokers to cut down on or eliminate smoking while still enjoying the hand-to-mouth ritual, the buzz of nicotine or both. To forbid their use is to take away some of the best tools currently in our arsenal for reducing the harm caused by smoking. In fact, encouraging all smokers to switch to lower-risk products is one of the best things we can do for the community’s health.

Since the proponents of the ban are in favor of increasing smoking cessation resources, including information on lower-risk products, it’s particularly surprising that they would, at the same time, push to disallow them on campus. It makes about as much sense as providing nicotine gum and patches but telling people they aren’t allowed to use them here. The reasoning behind this is presumably to prevent non-smokers from being drawn in and becoming addicted to vaping or even progressing to smoking. Aside from the fact that despite almost ten years of research Tufts Tobacco Free hasn’t provided evidence linking vaping to any illness, this again raises the question of how far we’re willing to go to try to protect people from themselves. If we want to forbid legal substances and activities simply because they might be dangerous to the user, why not start with sugary sodas or horseback riding, both of which are actively offered by the university?

Tufts Tobacco Free doesn’t just want to ban smoking on campus. They seek a full-on ban on smoking, tobacco and a set of products whose most important connection to smoking is that they have helped millions of people kick the habit, according to a survey sponsored by the European Union. This is a policy that is likely to achieve the opposite of its stated aim, and should be opposed by anyone concerned about our community’s health.