Campus to be smoke-free: Does an enforcement policy need ‘teeth’ to be effective?


Department of Anthropology

In the last couple months, I’ve sat on the committee charged with making recommendations to the Chancellor to implement a campus-wide ban on tobacco products. It’s not a question of whether or not to pursue the ban. The ban is coming—on July 1, 2013, to be exact. This committee’s charge is to figure out the best way to make this ban as effective and harmonious as possible. The committee met first in early December, after the freakish Halloween snowstorm interrupted scheduling. At that first meeting, we broke into smaller subcommittees after discussion in which several necessary efforts were identified, such as changing promotional materials for the university to reflect the new tobacco-free campus; coordinating and promoting smoking cessation programs to assist UMass campus smokers in quitting; figuring out the enforcement strategy, etc.

At the first full committee meeting, I kept quiet. The nearly 20 participants immediately established the tone: smokers are a danger to us and themselves, and some of them are likely to give us a problem with this ban if we execute it poorly. Us vs. Them. I didn’t have the courage to identify with Them right off the bat. Never at the meeting was the question asked, who sitting here smokes? And so the committee went about their business, identifying potential problems. “Blue-collar” smokers were mentioned. Recalcitrance was expected not just from some students, but some staff as well. It was at this meeting that I first heard the meme about policies like this needing “teeth.” We looked at some handouts about other universities that had successfully implemented tobacco bans, and then signed up for subcommittees.

I joined the enforcement subcommittee. Nice people, working hard to figure out the sticky points about how to enforce this policy. Maybe it was the more intimate group, but this meeting felt less hostile for me to come out as a smoker, and so when the question was thankfully posed, I said, “yes, I smoke.” Eyebrows were raised slightly, but no one treated me any differently or dismissed my comments. Everyone there seemed to maintain their staunch anti-smoking stance, but our discussions were always pleasant and genuinely directed toward making the best possible recommendations.

The enforcement policy consensus seemed to harden after the presentation from Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Jim Sheehan, who oversaw the implementation of a campus smoking ban at Towson University (near Baltimore) in 2010. He advocated for the path that Towson took: a zero-tolerance mission; $75 fines for smoking on campus; hiring a security firm to be the “smoking police” for a couple semesters after the policy takes effect; some sort of disciplinary procedure for students, staff and faculty who disobey the policy repeatedly; including the ban on parked and traveling cars on campus; a robust smoking cessation option; lots of signage and promotion of the new policy.

Sheehan argued that all policies like this “need teeth,” which got several agreeing head nods. And like most of the other meetings I went to, Sheehan pointed to the ramp outside Whitmore—jokingly referred to a the “smoker’s gauntlet” by another committee member at a previous meeting—as the direct evidence that smokers cannot even obey the 20-feet-from-the-building rule already in place. I offered my objections to this way of going about the enforcement of the ban, and I think I was listened to, but no one else agreed. I think this enforcement strategy is unnecessary and unduly punitive, but it seems that it will be the basis for what is discussed at the second full meeting of the group in early February. My participation on the committee is now over.  I’m packing to go abroad this week to do field work and data collection for my dissertation.

Full disclosure: I smoke a lot. On campus, outside my apartment, in my car.  I’ve smoked about a pack a day, more or less consistently, since I started at age 18. I suppose it’s fair to call me a smoker, though that’s a designation I feel shoehorned into more than some identity I thoughtfully maintain. Besides, being a smoker these days is shameful. No one encourages me to smoke. In fact, many people instruct me to quit in various ways, to become like them, a non-smoker. Everyone knows how terribly smoking affects one’s health. The dangers of second-hand smoke are well documented. It’s costly. It’s stinky. It’s no wonder that smoking as a practice is saturated with associations of disease (“cancer-sticks”) and death—because it kills many people and makes many others sick. Knowing all of this and still carrying on with smoking is thus indefensible. The only way we seem to make sense of smokers and their choice to carry on with their lunacy despite all warnings is to classify them as addicts, which then mitigates the responsibility of their behavior a bit and proscribes a path to make them, finally, part of the non-smoking majority.

So this committee and this initiative carry on, not stopping to consider anything but the ways that smoking bothers and harms the campus community, smokers and non-smokers alike. For smokers like me, this new policy appears to be a good faith effort to save me and those around me from myself. It’s hard to articulate objections to this policy. But I do wonder about this way of thinking about smokers and smoking. And the policy will eventually have “teeth”, whatever that ends up meaning as the committee continues to deliberate its recommendations. But teeth just mean that someone will get chewed. Is it worth it?

First, I need to answer for myself: what pleasures or social benefits of smoking might be being obfuscated or dismissed by this vision of smoking and smokers? This is almost an unspeakable question, and that’s what makes it, I think, so important. I don’t expect this to emerge as a topic of discussion, but I wish it would.

And secondly: is it indeed a fact that a new policy must be implemented with carrots and sticks to “take” or are there other ways of conducting a campus-wide effort to eradicate smoking? This gets to the heart of the skepticism I have toward the punitive stance that the enforcement of the policy may take. “Beware of those in whom the will to punish is strong,” Nietzsche wrote, and for good reason. There’s a mountain of evidence that shows positive reinforcement produces much more durable behavioral changes than negative punishment (of course, there are hairs to split here). And there’s another mountain of social science data demonstrating that punitive deterrence has a far shallower effect on compliance with law (or norms) than does a person’s moral compass, or as psychologist Tom Tyler calls it, “internal obligation.”

I still have a lot more thinking to do about these and other questions about smoking and smoking bans, and I (almost) regret not being around this semester to see where the conversation goes and what the final implementation recommendations will be made. Hope it’s worth it.



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