A smoke-free UC goes too far


There’s nothing to say in defense of cigarettes. Smoking is a detestable, dangerous habit — but it’s also a legal one, and there is plenty to say in defense of allowing adults to make bad decisions if they’re not breaking the law or harming others. The University of California should have taken that into account before UC President Mark G. Yudof announced that all 10 campuses would become smoke- and tobacco-free within two years. As long as smokers aren’t filling others’ lungs with second-hand smoke, the university shouldn’t outlaw them.

Smoking bans are justified in all sorts of places — inside buildings and even in some outdoor areas, such as beaches, where cigarette stubs are the most common trash item, and wilderness parks, where smoking can cause fires. Indeed, there aren’t too many places left where smokers can freely indulge, because there aren’t too many places where smoking doesn’t affect others. But forbidding smoking in outdoor areas where it doesn’t pose any particular health or safety risks goes too far.

Students don’t just attend classes on campus; for many, it’s their de facto city. They live, lounge, work and play there. At some schools, it’s easy to walk to the nearest public street; at others, getting off campus involves a hike. Which might be the point of the ban — to make smoking so inconvenient that it’s virtually impossible. There seems to be an element of paternal concern about students developing a dangerous lifelong habit in Yudof’s decision.


Such concern is praiseworthy when it takes the form, as the new policy does, of banning sales of cigarettes as well as tobacco company ads on campus, but not when it seeks to control individual actions. It’s clear that this policy isn’t aimed solely at protecting non-smokers; it also includes chewing tobacco, which doesn’t harm the health of passersby.

Smoking is already forbidden in university buildings; it also should be banned around residence halls, at outdoor eateries and perhaps in other spots where students tend to gather and smokers are a cough-inducing nuisance. But that doesn’t have to mean protecting non-smokers from every whiff of smoke as they walk to and from class. And surely every campus can find a few outdoor places that could be designated as smoking areas.

The vast majority of UC students are 18 or older. Those new adults, exercising their first independence from parental control, make mistakes — boy, do they make mistakes — but as long as their activities aren’t illegal, dangerous to others or imminently life-threatening (such as the binge drinking that colleges should do more to curb), the university should steer clear of outright bans.