Banning Cigarette Use on College Campuses Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

Tobacco-free policies can be harmful to campus health.

The Florida Project/A24 Films

Tobacco products, especially cigarettes, are harmful to the human body and everyone should avoid using them. That’s not a controversial statement, and Americans today are just about all on board with that. Which is good, because in some countries tobacco companies take advantage of uninformed populations, while thankfully in America we make fabulous catcentric ads to share the facts.

However, enthusiasm for the eradication of cigarette smoking has made any motion towards that end sound like a no-brainer, even if the action has little to do with smoking prevention or cessation. One such example is the institution of tobacco-free policies on college campuses. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is the most recent college in Wisconsin to adopt this policy, a policy which about 35% of U.S. four-year colleges have in place (according to The American Journal of Public Health). This sounds, at first, like an excellent initiative, as it would eliminate second-hand smoke and cigarette butts while discouraging young people from continuing a harmful activity. No doubt parents on college tours would nod in approval as their tour guide mentions it. But, agreeable as the notion of tobacco-free campuses might seem, it is a discriminatory policy that creates more problems than it solves.

Perhaps the most obvious objection to this policy is that it won’t stop students from smoking, because nicotine is addictive and a little old policy isn’t going to stop people from getting their fix. It will, instead, make for new smoking-related problems, including an increase in littering as smokers unable or unwilling to go to receptacles off-campus will smoke in secrecy (or not) and cast their butts down wherever. Smoking isn’t, after all, illegal, and so there’s not much to be risked by shirking the rules. Furthermore, policies like the one at UWM include e-cigs, which a staggering number of teens are using. E-cigs are easy to smoke in secret (so much so that it’s become a game kids play), and if schools insist on banning vapes from campus, secretive vaping is going to increase, including in places like bathrooms, dorms, and classrooms. Schools are better off setting aside designated smoking areas and maintaining those areas with clean receptacles.

But the more pressing issue is the way in which tobacco-free policies discriminate against certain demographics. Certain groups tend to smoke more, including people of color[1], those who identify as LGBTQ+, veterans, and international students. At predominately white, middle to upper-class American four-year colleges (so, most of them), these populations already face marginalization, which is obvious in the case of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, but also a subtle part of the experience of groups like military veterans. Veterans face marginalization as they enter school already in their 20s and with an uncommon life experience, one that may have left them with acute psychological and emotional burdens. They’re not always a natural fit with your “typical” college student. International students face obstacles like cultural difference and a language barrier. It can be challenging for them to get integrated into campus life, and they are sometimes cordoned off into places and activities for international students.

Tobacco-free policies exacerbate marginalization of these groups. Think about it: these policies further ingrain the stigma on cigarette-smoking by making those who partake physically remove themselves from the campus, expelling them from the physical community like a leper colony. Standing around a designated area littered with cigarette butts are people of color (who white folk already wrongly associate with trashy habits), LGBTQ+ persons (already considered deviant), veterans (already on the fringes of campus life), and international students (whose very designation as international Others them at all times). They’re there because The College says they have to be. They’re not allowed to do that thing (that might be commonplace in their country or a coping mechanism) in the presence of more clean-living citizens on the pristine grounds of their campus.

The optics aren’t great. But it doesn’t just look bad. It is bad. It hinders the community-building goals that every college should have.

Tobacco-free campuses reinforce marginalization of certain student groups in a literal way, which is a heavy price to pay for what amounts to very little reward. Because, after more careful consideration, what do these policies actually do? They don’t promote cessation in a meaningful way, nor do they reduce litter. If second-hand smoke is the concern, well, that just isn’t valid. Second-hand smoke is dangerous, but room can be made for non-smokers to keep a safe distance from urns and ash trays.

It would seem, then, that colleges are instituting these policies either because they are mistaken about their efficacy, or because merely having the policy sounds good. Whether it’s misguided good intentions or calculated marketing, the institution of tobacco-free policies is harmful to groups of students already at a disadvantage in higher education.

1 Statistically, a higher percentage of white Americans smoke than Black or Latinx Americans, but I include this here because the Journal-Sentinel article mentions that, in Milwaukee, tobacco ads are especially focused in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. The smoker demographics of some universities may not align with the country’s.

One thought on “Banning Cigarette Use on College Campuses Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

  1. As usual you hit the mark. I’d say about 90% of the decisions made on campuses are made because it sounds or looks good, not whether it actually does any good. They think they are creating little utopias, but manage to have forgotten the meaning of that word. It’s all a way to make an expensive school-year camp for the privileged seem like it’s not an expensive school-year camp for the privileged.

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