U-M Goes Cold Turkey

28 06 2011

I just received an email from the University of Michigan’s great and fearless leader Mary Sue Coleman. This official dispatch regards the looming July 1 implementation of the Smoke-Free University Initiative, which, as Coleman is excited to announce, will “promote a healthier U-M” by banning all smoking everywhere on all U-M property. You can still smoke in your car, as long as your windows are rolled up (no, seriously).

There are innumerable practical problems with the ban that go beyond the “four-wheeled gas chamber” loophole. Smoking has been banned in University buildings since 1987, and a rarely enforced no-smoking perimeter already exists around building entrances and exits. Instead of enforcing this existing rule, U-M Administration is going cold turkey and removing all outdoor ashtrays from campus. Since U-M operates facilities on thousands of acres across the state, it is hard to imagine a student or professor trudging off university property for a quick smoke between classes; couple that with the fact that compliance is, for now at least, voluntary, and it seems that Coleman is going to be sweeping up a lot of cigarette butts that would have otherwise been tossed responsibly. Of course, convenience and practicality are merely speed bumps on Coleman’s mad dash to cultivate an ill-defined campus “culture of health.”

I’ll put all those practical problems aside for a moment, though, because those are minor concerns compared to the manner in which U-M went about announcing and implementing the ban itself. From initial announcement in 2009, it was made clear that the ban was going to happen, and that it would be absolute. So when Coleman or other members of the U-M administration state that the implementation plan “has taken into account all of the feedback we received from thousands of faculty, staff, students, alumni, fans and friends, and the greater Ann Arbor community, through public forum comments, surveys, focus groups, and other means,” they are being more than just a little disingenuous. I went to the open forums and asked questions; together with members of the College Libertarians and the editorial board of The Michigan Review, I spoke out against the ban and urged a reconsideration or at least a compromise. The consensus that Coleman gleefully claims to represent is wholly manufactured. No members of the campus community asked for this ban, and no voices of opposition, no matter how articulate, principled, or reasoned, were heard.

Here’s where I’m supposed to acknowledge that smoking in an unhealthy activity, and grudgingly admit that Coleman has a point in banning smoking on campus. But I’m not going to cave on this one. Yes, as anyone with a pulse is aware, smoking is bad for the smoker, and it may be bad for others in an enclosed area – but not outside, where smoke disperses and mingles with countless other pollutants (though we can probably expect a CO2-free campus initiative any day now).

Health is most certainly not what this ban is about. It is about allowing the U-M administration to paste another gold star on their Progressive Achievement poster board. It is about keeping up with the hundreds of other universities across the country tripping over themselves to institute feel-good initiatives.

Most importantly, it is about the ability to control the activities of other adults in a positively misguided effort to bring individuals in line with some perceived ideal. This ban ably demonstrates the domineering, Puritan impulse that drives nanny-staters at local, state, and national levels. Given the stigma surrounding tobacco use, that so few stand up for tobacco is somewhat understandable.

It should be readily apparent, however, that if you give the nanny-staters smoking, they’ll come back for trans-fats and soda. When “the good of society” becomes the yardstick against which all personal activities must be measured, nothing – from riding a bicycle without a helmet to owning a gun to cooking with butter – is out of the control freaks’ purview.




One response

28 06 2011

Candy bars, pizza, salad dressing—what’s the next legal substance to be banned from campus to promote what the powers that be deem a “healthier” U-M?

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