Bring: Smoke and Mirrors

The College’s new tobacco ban has good intentions, but it could have harmful implications.

by Daniel Bring | 1/15/21 2:15am

Smoking is one of the leading causes of death in America, and the tobacco industry has concealed and obfuscated the dangers of smoking to protect its profits. As a former cigarette smoker, I learned the risks firsthand and quit for good when I had a precancerous growth removed from my inner lip in 2019. I have lost relatives to smoking, and I know how dangerous it is.

But College President Phil Hanlon’s abrupt and unexpected proclamation of a “tobacco-free campus” in an email to campus yesterday is likely to do more harm than good. The ban does nothing to cut off the supply of tobacco, unless Hanlon also plans to shutter Stinson’s and the Irving gas station, which I highly doubt would occur. This measure is a prohibition, plain and simple, that will only make smokers’ behaviors riskier while providing few new resources to reduce community members’ tobacco use.

This policy creates an atmosphere that will allow the punishment and ostracization of some tobacco users, while ignoring others and creating new risks. For instance, smokeless tobacco products, which carry high health risks, can easily evade the ban, as students can covertly chew or dip tobacco. Electronic cigarettes, including wildly popular systems like JUUL, can be easily concealed and used indoors without fear of setting off fire alarms.

Cigarette smokers are going to be the most affected. Many of them are suffering from a medically recognized addiction to nicotine, and quitting is not easy. The restrictions will also disproportionately impact low-income people, racial and sexual minorities and people with mental illnesses. These demographics smoke at higher rates than others, largely due to socioeconomic and environmental factors. The new policy targets them without providing any serious effort at offering new and improved resources to help them quit.

The new “Tobacco Cessation Resources” page that goes along with the policy offers little more than a list of phone hotlines, tobacco cessation apps and external programs. This sparse webpage does not show any consideration for the particular problems that smokers at Dartmouth may encounter, such as social environments that reinforce unhealthy decisions. The “Quit Kits,” provided by the College just include “a small supply” of nicotine gum alongside fidget toys and chewing gum. Are we to expect that a prohibition will encourage addicted smokers to make use of these meager resources?

Instead, the new tobacco restrictions might force smokers into hiding, and increase health, safety and environmental risks. 

People might go to smoke indoors, through the windows of their dorm rooms or inside Greek houses. Those behaviors greatly increase the health risks of secondhand smoke, which are reduced, though not eliminated, by smoking outside. And they would also increase the risks of a dorm-destroying fire breaking out.

Alternatively, some people might venture into the woods to smoke away from the surveillance of Safety and Security or their colleagues. Discarded cigarette butts are a leading cause of wildfires. Needless to say, it would be a great tragedy if any fire breaks out because Dartmouth smokers take riskier decisions to evade the ban.

While tobacco carries serious health risks, the best way to reduce smoking is to improve education about the dangers of smoking. Comprehensive scientific research has repeatedly demonstrated that conclusion. If Hanlon wants to reduce the risks of smoking on campus, he should commit resources to anti-tobacco education, not to punishing smokers.

Bring is a member of the Class of 2021.

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