No to Tobacco-Free: An Unlikely Opportunity in Leadership

Earlier this year, the Student Government Association at the College of Charleston began a debate that is still under way. Should the campus be tobacco-free?  A campus that is 52 acres and so uniquely integrated with the city of Charleston that I sometimes don’t know where the campus ends and the city begins, and I’m enrolled here.

To answer this question, a resolution that would ban the use of all tobacco products on campus was presented to the student Senate last semester. What ensued was the longest and liveliest debate of the 2012-2013 school year. A record number of students showed up to that Senate hearing to voice their opinions, with the overwhelming majority opposed to the ban. Despite their efforts, once the dust settled and everyone had said their peace, the tobacco ban passed with a 14 to 8 vote.

Later that night, the resolution was debated by the Faculty Senate. I attended this hearing and was impressed by the debate; many of the issues raised by the faculty were the same as those raised by the students. In a moment, the resolution was rejected with a 15 to 14 vote.

The decision to pass and enforce the resolution on campus ultimately rests with the Board of Trustees. I hope that the Board will continue this debate with a real discussion at their meeting this month, and not just a thoughtless vote based on, “Smoking is bad, no one should.”  So going forward, there are a three points they need to remember.

First, the College of Charleston is a one-of-a-kind institution that requires one-of-a-kind solutions. A very common reason given in support of the ban is that everyone else is enforcing bans. True, Clemson enacted a tobacco ban in 2008 and The University of South Carolina did as well in 2006, but the argument that everyone else is doing it should never be enough to do anything. This is something that most children are taught by their parents before they are 5 years old: “If all you friends jumped off a cliff….” you know the rest.

The outcome of this debate should not be seen as a chance to follow, but as an opportunity to lead, an opportunity to set an example and an opportunity to show that a college campus can be a courteous and considerate place without the threat of punishment.

Second, there is already a College of Charleston tobacco policy on the books. It was adopted in 2006 via a sensible compromise and requires smokers to smoke in one of the campus’ 24 designated smoking areas. These areas are visibly labeled, some better than others, and are equipped with ashtrays. The majority of the student body is completely unaware of these areas, but with better promotion they would see more use.

The Board of Trustees should not make the mistake that so many governing bodies do; compound the problem by just layering on another level of regulation/policy/law, resulting in regulation that is regulating the original regulation. I know everyone wants to receive a pat on the back, Trustees included, but when the desire to just get something done becomes more important than the conversation about what is being done, the brakes need to be pumped.

Third, there is the issue of enforcement, or lack thereof. Under the new policy visitors and contractors must abide by the regulation, just as students do. So are we going to have students walking up to construction workers that are building the new dorms enjoying a cigarette on their lunch break and say, “Hey you can’t do that.”  Or if John Doe visiting from Idaho decides to take some pictures of our beautiful campus, are we going to write him a ticket because he is chewing tobacco? I hope not. Southern hospitality is not conditional.

In the end, if we are talking about a policy that is unrealistic, redundant and truly unenforceable, then why are we talking? Do we really want a campus where the faculty and students are responsible for monitoring the tobacco use of their fellow faculty and students? Can you see that creating tension? On the night the resolution failed in the Faculty Senate last semester, a member of that Senate stood up and stated, “I did not take this job to be a policeman.” Well said, and I did not enroll here to be a policeman either.

So this year as the Board of Trustees begins to meet and discuss the policies and initiatives that create our culture on campus. I hope they resist the pressure to just follow trends and instead diligently work to find creative solutions for the College of Charleston’s unique place in the world. A place that I love and am proud to attend.

Let me conclude by saying that I’m not a smoker. I have seen the negative effects it has on people’s health and I choose not to participate. I also know that when you live in a free society, sometimes people do things you do not agree with, and that’s awesome, because that means sometimes I can do and say things that not everyone agrees with. So I’m not sticking up for my people, I’m just sticking up for people.

*The views in this article represent the opinion of the author, and not those of CisternYard News.

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