Does Bates have a smoking problem? Or does Bates have an image problem? Imagine a smoke-free Bates… it would be pretty, right? No smelly smoke, no smokers loitering in the quad? The Bates College Public Health Initiative recently sent out a survey to the student body asking for our opinions on Bates becoming a smoke-free campus. I feel compelled to respond to the administration by asking them to consider what prompts the initiative. Is it genuine concern about students’ health? Or is it the desire to make Bates appear, on the surface, to be a healthy, happy community?
I understand the impulse to end smoking on the campus. Of course we want to live in a healthy community. But will banning smoking actually help people stop smoking? Or will it further stigmatize a group of students who already feel marginalized? Let’s take a quick glance at the demographics of smokers in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control, people who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, people identifying with multiple ethnicities, and people in the LGBTQ+ community all smoke at higher than average rates. Banning smoking on campus will allow the administration to discriminate against these already marginalized groups. Instead of ostracizing this part of our community, maybe we should instead be thinking about how to support Bates smokers who wish to quit.
As a former smoker, I can tell you that laws against smoking do not do much to deter people from smoking. When I started smoking at 16, I simply paid older people to buy me cigarettes. Banning smoking at Bates will not cut down on the rates of smoking, it will just get people in trouble for smoking – most likely the students who can least afford to be in trouble. I suggest that The Bates College Public Health Initiative consider the War on Drugs in the United States. Instead of lowering the rates of drug use, these policies allowed law enforcement to discriminate against people of color, and led to an epidemic of incarceration of young black men. By contrast, countries like Switzerland focused on treatment and rehabilitation, which saw rates of drug use dramatically decline. During my time at Bates, I have never once seen a flyer about the dangers of smoking, and I have never once heard of any resource on campus to help students quit. And yes, I was looking, because this year I have been trying to quit after four years of smoking. It was only with the support of my friends here that I have finally been able to give up cigarettes for good. I would like to suggest to the Public Health Initiative that they focus their efforts on helping students quit smoking, rather than penalizing smokers.
Like the Bates College Public Health Initiative, I too hope that one day Bates becomes a smoke-free campus. But the Public Health Initiative proposes a campus that appears to be smoke-free when, in reality, the smokers on campus are hidden from public view. I envision a campus that is actually smoke-free, because students have received the support they need to quit. The way to fix a problem is not to ignore it and push it aside in hopes that it will disappear.
So, dear Bates College Public Health Initiative: do you actually want to end smoking at Bates? If so, I suggest that you focus on prevention and treatment rather than criminalization. If treatment programs do exist, Bates could certainly work on better promoting them. The only thing that this proposed ban will do is make Bates appear to be a smoker-free campus, one that will look appealing to rich parents looking to send their children to school in a clean, protective environment. Or is that what you are aiming for?