Nov 19, 2009

On Smoking

The University of Kentucky initiates a campus-wide smoking ban today. From this point forward tobacco use is prohibited anywhere on campus property, even the UK-owned streets and sidewalks.

Good for them.

I do not hate smokers or smoking. I used to be a pack-a-day smoker - I preferred Camel Lights, but have smoked everything from Virginia Slim SuperSlims (my wife's cigarette of choice) to Newport 100s to Lucky Strikes. Many members of my family either are now or at one time were regular smokers. Almost all of my friends still smoke cigarettes. Every now and then I have been known to smoke a cigar in the evening over a good beer or glass of whiskey.

Now that I am on the other end of the smoke, however, I find the habit disgusting. I know how caustic smoking is - as an asthmatic, I did untold damage to my own respiratory system when I was a regular smoker, but failed repeatedly to quit for my own good due to my addiction. Most cigarette smokers are so addicted to the act of smoking that they don't recognize their yellow-stained skin and teeth, chronic cough, or the spreading wrinkles on their skin. They don't notice that the way cigarette smoke hangs on their clothes makes them smell like a stale ashtray, and they don't recognize that the byproducts of their habit are unhealthy. Nicotine makes you feel good - even if the average smoker was capable of recognizing these facts, they wouldn't care. Nicotine makes you feel great.

However, there are significant public health risks that come from cigarette smoking. The acetate filters generally thrown on the ground after smoking are toxic, flammable, aesthetically unpleasing and costly to clean up. Most smokers use ashtrays, but there are a large number of exceptions to the rule, especially when smokers are forced outdoors or off campus into areas where there are no available ashtrays.

Second hand smoke is a proven killer, despite a small minority of deniers whose outcry is reminiscent of the global-warming-disbeliever movement. Any time someone has to be in a room with smokers or has to walk through a herd of smokers to get into a bar or onto campus they are exposed to carcinogenic chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer and cardiovascular disease. Imagine being forced to involuntarily walk through a cyanide-carbon monoxide cloud to go get a beer or an education. That is precisely what is happening when a non-smoker is being exposed to a herd of smokers.

Therefore, when an institution like the University of Kentucky bans smoking on its property it is doing a great service to its employees, faculty, students and visitors. The unfortunate effect is that the measure will force smokers into surrounding neighborhoods and onto the sidewalks of city streets, where a bike-riding asthmatic like me will be exposed to a toxic cloud of smoke and clots of smokers loitering around. I'd rather be stuck behind a diesel bus exhaust for my 20-minute commute. Their butts will litter the ground on and around these streets and they will become a serious public nuisance.

The Lexington-Fayette government has every right to forbid smoking on public sidewalks - they have already banned smoking in private businesses throughout the area. Taking the smokers off of our sidewalks and into their own yards, cars, and homes keeps their habit out of other people's lungs. Doing so would be politically dangerous, however, especially with the current anti-government conservative movement that fails to distinguish the margins of freedom at public health and safety. It is reasonable that life is before liberty and the pursuit of property in Locke's list of natural rights.

It seems that an individual who has greater concern for the public good than they do their own freedom to pollute and destroy their health should concur.

I would like to take UK to issue about one thing, however. The smoking ban has been presented as a public health issue, but the university continues to burn tons of coal in its two physical plants, emitting an even higher quantity of toxic gases into the air over campus than all of the smokers there combined. If UK thinks it is okay to go ahead and ban smoking while releasing the noxious byproducts of coal into the atmosphere, that is the very essence of hypocrisy.

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Keep it civil and pg-13, please.