START research unbiased for CCL vote

I began to hear the phrase “smoking ban” thrown around as early as last September when I joined the VSA Student Life Committee. Like most things administrative, the idea of a ban seemed distant and hardly of concern, especially to a graduating senior. Soon, however, these conversations became a proposal, drafted without anything resembling widespread solicitation of student input. With the VSA council finally up in arms about this proposed legislation and its lack of student voice, we chartered a subcommittee known as the Smoking and Tobacco Action Research Team (START).

As START began to reach out to students, some perceived us as a propagandizing effort on one side of the debate or another. However, our goal has only ever been one of inquiry. Our mission statement says that we “shall engage community voices and gather qualitative and quantitative data about community feedback and ideas,” putting aside our own personal views and agendas in the pursuit of creating a comprehensive view of student opinion, concerns, and ideas. We collected data to make a decision, not to support one already made.

We started out throwing three town hall meetings. The thing about town halls is that you only get a small sample size of people willing to discuss an issue, despite the free pizza. There are also very few neutral or undecided viewpoints as students with strong opinions are the ones that make the effort to come out. Here we discovered the exact arguments students were making both for and against a smoke free campus. People’s rights (both to smoke and to breathe clean air), social divisions, health issues, safety, and frustration at the current policies all came to the fore. Talking with all these people, START began to see this as something much more than a “yes or no” issue.

Keeping all of these points in mind, START then created the all-campus survey. Of course, surveys are great because the generate lots of data, but they also can create contention because not everybody agrees with what is being asked or how so. All I can say is that START spent weeks writing and rewriting the questions, as well as asking faculty and administrators for assistance in minimizing the bias within them.

With 940 respondents, the results came back pretty clear: students were 55% against transitioning to a smoke free campus, 45% in support of it.

Interestingly though, even more students indicated that they felt a smoking ban would be impractical. An impressive 89% of students saw this transition as difficult to enforce, while a solid 57% did not even think it would reduce the negative health effects of smoking on campus.

Additionally, only 13% of students identified as anything more than a “rare” smoker while 33% indicated having smoked at least once in the past twelve months. Compared to the 55% of students against the transition, this means that a significant percentage of anti-ban students are absolute non-smokers. Based on this alone, it became clear that this issue does not boil down to smokers versus non-smokers, but must in fact involve a number of social and cultural factors that go beyond a particular person’s ability to smoke.

However, in the spirit both of limited partiality and the 45% of people who responded positively towards the smoke free transition, I want to address the legitimacy of their concerns.

The negative health effects of smoking and being around smoke are very real, though many collegiate twenty-somethings openly ignore the physical harm they are doing to themselves and to others. We claim to be educated about the risks, and to an extent we honestly must be, but there seems to be a distinct cultural dismissal of these dangers. I think that a more honest and factually supported discussion about how smoking affects people is necessary if we want to avoid exacerbated social divisions in the years ahead. I am not trying to shame anyone or any particular opinion, but I think honesty is important when we try to discuss a sensitive and personal issue like this one.

In that manner of thinking, I concluded START’s recommendations by asking that respect be valued in the process of deciding on a ban and, if it were the case, in enforcing it. As I state in the document, people smoke for a variety of reasons, be it social or cultural background, stress relief, sociability, or addiction.

Others also abhor smoking, often for the sake of their own bodies. As the START team came to see, and consequently communicate in its findings, the multiplicity of personal, social, and legal factors renders this issue anything but simple. People come at it from all sides and communicate concerns that both complement and conflict with one another.

Ultimately, the Committee on College Life voted to pass the proposal to move towards a smoke and tobacco free campus. Although this decision goes against START’s recommendation, there are other factors that admittedly went into the decision. In particular, there is the possibility of a state mandated ban in the future.

Regardless, it is now up to the students to determine how they want to proceed during this transition. Hopefully there is a chance for the community to move forward in a way that respects every individual involved and can avoid the pitfalls of an anonymous SayAnything debate.

 

—Devin Griffin ‘13 is an Urban Studies major. He is President of the Terrace Apartments and Chair of the Smoking and Tobacco Action Research Team.

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