Raising the Standard.

ON CAMPUS: Regents Approve Smoking Ban

Young deviants.

Young deviants.

“This is about behavior modification.”

Yesterday, “after little discussion” according to news reports, the Board of Regents unanimously approved the Tobacco and Smoke-Free Campus Policy, which will ban all forms of smoking from USG campuses. Because Regents like Philip Wilheit confide that they received “no negative feedback” about the policy prior to voting for it, we are reposting our editorial from the Spring edition. It is titled “Snuffing out Responsibility.” We hope that it tempers the Regents’ zeal for behavior modification.

The breezeway outside the Miller Learning Center is littered with cigarette butts strewn in a half-moon shape around benches, demarcating a popular area where students congregate between class to smoke. The spent cigarettes are an eyesore. Surely, they are a hassle to the janitorial staff. And they are a direct consequence of UGA’s 2011 decision to ban smoking within 35 feet of campus buildings.

Before the partial ban, ashtrays were provided in the breezeway so smokers could snuff out their cigarettes. After the partial ban, ashtrays were not exactly in the spirit of the law, so they were hauled off. Smokers continued to smoke (to the surprise of no one), and blameless students are left wading through smoke and cigarette butts on the way to class.

The partial ban and its non-effect on smokers’ behavior is an interesting study in unintended consequences — all the outcomes that legislators and policymakers, in their fallibility, do not anticipate.

Now the Georgia Board of Regents seeks to go further. On the Regents’ February agenda is the Tobacco and Smoke-Free Campus policy, which would place a blanket ban on tobacco use at every public college and university in the state. By the time this edition reaches print, the vote will have been tallied. We expect the policy to pass and oppose it bitterly. Here’s why.

While the litter resulting from UGA’s partial ban is a nice story about the best-laid plans of mice and men, it does not cut to the core of the issue. On utilitarian grounds, the total smoking ban is a slam-dunk case for the regents, student government and every other would-be tinkerer on campus. Cigarettes are bad for you, see. They will kill you. As will practically any other plant that is burned and inhaled into the lungs. You already knew that, as do all your classmates who passed through the anti-smoking, anti-peer pressure campaigns with flying colors.

Yet some students have made the decision to smoke. Should they be punished for doing so?

Ah, but what about non-smokers, some will say. Nationally, the biggest lobbying organization pushing for smoking bans is called the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, which advocates smoking bans to combat the nuisance of second-hand smoke. This is good messaging, because edits controlling others’ behavior are more palatable when the behavior is harmful or annoying to a blameless third party. Thus the Eighth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Steal.

As it happens, outdoor second-hand smoke represents a legitimate nuisance, the regulation of which is the proper domain of local give-and-take to ensure everyone gets along. Such matters are, as we have mentioned before, matters of prudence. A 35-foot smoking ban could possibly be justified in this way.

However, the externalities of tobacco smoke are not the main rationales behind the Tobacco and Smoke-Free Campus policy. Why else would the ban encompass e-cigarettes, which produce a nicotine mist but contain no tobacco?

The Regents’ motive must lie elsewhere. Let them explain.

“I personally feel a great responsibility to protect our students from their own devices,” Regent Philip Wilheit told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“This is about behavior modification,” Regent Larry Ellis told the Athens Banner-Herald. “That’s what we’re all about in higher education.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. The arguments behind every micro-tyranny in the country, from soda bans to speech codes, have many friends at the university level. The arguments are an expression of a modern controlling mindset that seeks to eliminate choice and responsibility in peoples’ lives in the name of public health.

Tobacco and sugar have come in for a particular beating, ostensibly because they are so dangerous. Yet we note with interest that the main UGA campus remains — as it will in perpetuity — open container. What of the health risks of alcohol? On game day, should binging students be protected from their own devices? Drink must be too common a vice among administrators and student government politicians to persecute in such a manner.

Having said our case, we have only this to say to the Board of Regents: Give us liberty or give us death. It may be that the former hastens the latter, but that does not diminish its importance.

—The Editors

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