News Analysis: Smoking in Stanford

Stanford introduced two anti-smoking policies during the summer holidays, both effective as of September 1. First, the School of Medicine has banned outdoor smoking. Second, the Stanford Benefits and the Health Improvement Program (HIP) has introduced the “Quit Tobacco Program” for faculty and staff.

Unlike drinking, smoking is quite rare in the Stanford community. According to the Stanford Report, the Stanford Health and Lifestyle Assessment indicated that of 1,088 staff surveyed, smokers constitute only 4 percent, which is far below the U.S. national average of 21 percent. This means that in a sense, the “Quit Tobacco Program” had already succeeded long before it was even introduced.

At the same time, analysis of both sides of the smoking issue is warranted. Anti-smoking arguments rest primarily on the grounds that smoking involves health risks for smokers and the people around them. According to this view, backed by scientific evidence, smoking increases one’s probability of heart attacks, lung cancer, oral cancer, emphysema, infertility, and many other medical ailments. The New York Times provides the statistics: “Tobacco kills 440,000 smokers every year in the United States, and secondhand smoke inhaled by bystanders claims another 50,000.” Claire Millman, president of the Alliance for Smoke-Free Air, offers her judgment: “Active smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in our country. Secondhand smoke, containing over 50 carcinogens, is a major cause of disease and death in nonsmokers.” Few would argue that smoking is a harmless activity, let alone a healthy one.

The deaths of non-smokers due to illnesses caused by secondhand smoke are particularly tragic. Smoking has negative external effects and private organizations, including college campuses, are right to take steps to reduce it. As such, it is sometimes sensible to disallow smoking indoors, especially in places like hospitals where patients with respiratory problems might reside. The majority of smokers would probably understand and accept the logic of such an indoor ban—their private actions should not compel others to breathe unclean air.

On the flip side, however, smokers are not the only ones at fault; arguably anti-smoking arguments also have their shortcomings. Although anti-smoking groups have the right to express their views (especially given the health risks of smoking), their arguments can often sound quite moralizing and overbearing, especially to those who know the risks of smoking and freely choose to smoke.

People choose to smoke for a variety of reasons. Some choose to smoke for recreational, social, or cultural reasons, while others may do it out of boredom. When I was in the military (where everyone had to wear the same haircuts and the same drab uniforms), I knew plenty of extroverted soldiers who smoked in order to express their individuality, defiance, and impulsivity in an organization otherwise known for its conformity. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his bestselling book The Tipping Point, the central perception that drives up the popularity of smoking is that “Smoking was never cool. Smokers are cool.” Ultimately, most people recognize smoking as a minor vice, not a crime.

Critics point to pervasive—and persuasive—tobacco advertising as a leading cause of addiction to smoking. But ever since Congress passed the 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned tobacco commercials on TV and radio, advertisement opportunities for cigarettes have been very narrow compared to other products like computers, cars, and fast food. Moreover, with the enormous press given to anti-smoking advertisements—some of them featuring photos of smokers’ damaged lungs, hearts, and brains—it is difficult to suggest that the advertising industry is particularly pro-smoking.

Smoking may reduce one’s lifespan, but so do many other minor vices. Drinking alcohol can lead to liver problems. Driving fast cars may lead to accidents. Eating too many hamburgers may lead to obesity and cardiovascular diseases. However, unlike smoking, where the first-time smoker coughs on his very first puff, the risks of drinking, driving, and eating hamburgers tend to disappear amorphously into our routines, their negative effects usually only appearing after several decades of accumulated neglect. Yet, day after day, millions of Americans freely and rationally choose to drive, eat fast food, and drink.

In the same way, some people believe that their decision to smoke is made on a rational basis after their personal consideration of the costs and benefits. Anti-smoking arguments rely on the premise that preserving one’s longevity is a good thing, which is generally true. However, despite the health warnings and the U.S. Surgeon General’s pronouncements on their cigarette packs, 44 million American adults still choose to smoke. If they decide that the pleasures of smoking are worth more than the ability to live to a hundred, who has the right to impose his values on them?

Ultimately, the smoking debate could be framed as a question of rights: How do we balance the non-smoker’s right to clean air with the smoker’s right to indulge in his preferred choice of recreation?

Both rights must be given due consideration. Perhaps we could agree that non-smokers have the right to breathe clean air, and every private organization should be allowed to tell people not to smoke on their premises. At the same time, it is also arguable that individuals have the right to choose to smoke. Although smoking’s health risks are widely known, the decision to smoke is a deeply personal choice that should not be completely vilified.

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