From the October 13, 2009 Columbia Spectator:
On Tuesday, Columbia will hold a town hall meeting on the proposal to ban smoking on campus. Haven’t heard about it? Not surprising. Outside of a few groups on campus, no one’s talked about it. That, in and of itself, is problematic for such a large policy change. Without public notice, small minorities, whether they are supporters or opponents of smoking, have virtual control over campus governance. Whether the broader student population wants it or not, a draconian policy might be imposed simply because supporters showed up at a meeting to gauge support. If only die-hards vote, the vote does not reflect the sentiment of the population as a whole and indeed poses a real threat to representative government. Even more noticeably, though, smoking is already banned across much of campus to little effect.
You wouldn’t know it from walking around campus, but smoking is banned within 25 feet of a building by state law. Where does that end? Who knows? It’s not marked. Even if someone wanted to obey the law, they would be hard-pressed to do so. Without any visible indications of where smokers can’t light up, the entrance to Butler becomes a cloud of tobacco smoke. That’s a real concern, especially for asthmatics, and Columbia’s learning environment is not fostered by forcing library-goers to brave an onslaught of smoke. There’s no reason they should have to, either. Smoking should be forbidden there.
Yet the Columbia administration is not focusing on that very real issue. Rather than putting up signs to indicate where smoking is and is not allowed, the administration is pushing a campus-wide ban on smoking under the radar without student knowledge, let alone input. Why? Would administrators enforce a new ban any more than the current ban is enforced? We can’t know. From the limited coverage in campus media, it has not been mentioned. Would Public Safety round up smokers on campus? Unlikely, but all the time they would spend telling students, and even faculty, to put out their cigarettes is time they would not be spending protecting students from crime.
In addition, unenforced rules erode respect for all rules. If the smoking ban is enacted and not enforced, it will spread a general disrespect for authority. If the smoking regulations are not enforced, this sends a very powerful signal that other rules, whether about underage drinking or writing graffiti on walls, will not be, either. Ultimately, this results in a broader lack of regard for campus standards and seemingly give smokers carte blanche to violate the rules.
If a complete ban were enforced, on the other hand, that would drive smokers off campus. The main gates and other entrances to campus would be clouded by smoke. If you think the smoke in front of Butler is bad, imagine how much worse it would be if all the smokers on campus were standing on 116th and Broadway, clustered together to form an even larger, more threatening cloud. Who would want to go to a school where they have to go through that to get to campus? Students would go off campus to find activities where the long arm of Public Safety wouldn’t tell them not to smoke. In a puff, Columbia’s effort to support student activities would be gone. Smokers would be less engaged in student life on campus, and considering that a number of student leaders smoke, Columbia’s vibrancy would decline.
The best thing to do would be for Columbia to enforce its current ban on smoking near buildings. Without depending on a massive witch hunt for smokers across campus, the administration could put up signs near buildings reminding students and faculty not to light up there but marking where smoking is permitted. Public Safety, in the course of its normal rounds, could remind smokers too close to buildings to take a step back without requiring a significant presence beyond what already exists. At the same time, rather than wasting money criminalizing a large portion of the Columbia community, the savings could be used to help smokers quit. It wouldn’t even require a drastic policy change. If that’s not enough, and scientific studies show that expanding a smoking ban would result in measurable improvements, the administration can publicly educate the community about the benefits of a change and wait for the democratic process to work.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.