Western University will take steps to ban smoking on campus by next summer, according to an advisory committee. The committee arrived at this decision following a campus-wide survey on smoking policy, which indicated that a significant majority of Western’s population supported a smoke-free campus.
Nobody can contest that smoking is a public and personal health risk, and there is clearly widespread support for it on campus. But a blanket ban, though well-intentioned, is riddled with potential problems.
One problem is that this measure treats smoking as an unpleasant habit, insensitive to others: but the fact is that nicotine addiction is a physical dependency as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and it has severe withdrawal symptoms. A campus-wide ban won’t help these people in any meaningful or considerate way — it just means they have to walk off campus, no matter the weather, to smoke anyway.
It’s not a question of banning inconsiderate behaviour, because most smokers want to kick their habit. Studies show the most effective way to get people to quit smoking is through evidence-based treatment, behavioural support and pharmacotherapy — in short, understanding and treating it as a health issue. An outright ban ultimately seems like more of a moral judgment than an effective, informed way to address addiction.
And that’s the other problem: the moral signalling pervasive throughout this process. The smoking survey circulated by the university, for example, was sprinkled with leading questions. One answer suggested was “butts on the ground at Western detract from our beautiful campus.” One section asks whether “Western should be a leader among large Canadian universities, and go smoke and tobacco-free”: who’s going to say no when it’s phrased like that?
Further, without a clear-cut enforcement strategy, a campus-wide ban on smoking is unlikely to be effective. Considering how poorly enforced the “clear air corridors” are, even now, there isn't any indication smokers will pay more attention once the hammer comes down.
However, Western's not the first to take these measures, and the move is in line with other Ontario universities. McMaster and the University of Toronto have already announced a similar plan to ban smoking on campus. But Western's own ad hoc committee has yet to define the specifics of their plan. There are a lot of details to be ironed out in the coming months.
An outright ban reflects a one-dimensional, moralizing attitude towards addiction. Smoking is a health problem, and it should be addressed as such.