The Harvard Kennedy School has joined the Harvard Medical School and the School of Public Health in an attempt to rid itself of hot air. No, unfortunately, not that kind of hot air. The Kennedy School administration has decided to ban smoking on campus. One month into the ban, house masters and school administrators have already proposed extending the ban to the whole campus, starting with Harvard Yard.
Currently, smokers are not allowed within twenty-five feet of any Harvard building. But they may not find refuge off campus either. The city of Cambridge has already taken steps towards banning all outdoor smoking. If both bans were to be implemented, Harvard smokers would not be able to find a place to legally smoke outside for about seven square miles.
Similar smoking bans have taken hold at hundreds of other college campuses across the nation, but the audacity is particularly striking at Harvard. The intent of such a ban is unavoidably paternalistic. The powers that be either assume that smokers do not know the risks and are unable to make decisions of their own, or that non-smokers are simply incapable of avoiding smoke. Despite what this ban implies, any passerby is, in fact, able to take one or two steps to avoid inhaling a black cancerous fog of death. Furthermore, it is ridiculous to imply Harvard smokers are making an uninformed decision. Harvard smokers, like the rest of the community, have been inundated with resources, campaigns, and societal pressures aimed at stopping smoking. Yet if health risks were the sole determinant of human behavior, no one would drive a car. The sheer audacity lies in the fact that this patronizing display of parochial paternalism is inflicted upon some of the brightest minds in the world.
If it were simple Harvard paternalism, that might be one thing; however, the logic behind the ban is not even consistent. If Harvard is genuinely concerned for the health of its students, why stop at smoking? Drinking is far more common and dangerous. In response, many argue that smoking, unlike drinking, may be dangerous secondhand. Yet arguing that there is no equivalent to “secondhand” smoke is a nonstarter. Kindly inform 72% of rape victims, roughly half of victims of domestic abuse, and any victim of a DUI that drinking does not have secondary consequences and see how they take it.
Perhaps a more substantive explanation for the ban may be found at the source. The group largely advancing the proposal is the IOP’s Tobacco Control Policy Group, led by Mackenzie J. Lowry ’11, a proctor in Wigglesworth. She has chosen to focus on Harvard Yard because, as she puts it, “it is very symbolic of Harvard University as a whole.” Apparently Lowry is concerned with the representation of Harvard regardless of whether it is truly representative.
Such a ban not only mocks the intelligence of Harvard affiliates, but also makes a mockery of the law itself. Current smoking laws are simply blowing smoke. Campus police have far better ways to occupy their time than hounding out renegade smokers. What’s more, the ban disproportionally affects international students and Harvard employees.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the ban is motivated more by moral repugnance than by any substantive reason. It is important to expose the philosophical presupposition that underlies this ban: the administration has an obligation to deter you from doing things that shorten your life. Yet a long life, even a long healthy life, is not everyone’s end goal.
I do not consider myself a smoker. I can count the number of packs of cigarettes I have bought on one hand. Yet, I stand in solidarity with those who believe that life is not measured in the number of breaths you take, but how you choose to take them. So I advise the administration to save theirs and leave mine for me.
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