Put that in your pipe and…go outside

“In individual student rooms (other than Greylock Quad and first-year dorms), students may smoke as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others to a smoke-free environment.” This is the College’s current policy regarding students smoking in their rooms, which appears to be a reasonable compromise between the desire of smokers to enjoy a cigarette and the rest of us not having to smell and inhale it. The Student Handbook specifically states that smoking is not permitted if “nearby occupants are disturbed.” This policy is very clear: Students can choose to smoke in their own rooms as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else.

However, the College has decided this policy is no longer sufficient to protect students from the “evils” of smoking. As a result, effective this summer smoking will be banned in all campus buildings, as well as within 25 feet of any building.

The College has also decided to start offering a free smoking cessation program at the Health Center. Quitting smoking is an extremely arduous task and the College should be commended on a noble effort to help its students through a difficult transition. We encourage students, faculty and staff to take advantage of this program.

However, we are concerned by the decision to make dorms smoke-free. The decision is largely based on the guidelines released by the American College Health Association (ACHA) as well as a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). According to Henry Wechsler, director of the HSPH, smoke-free dorms are “a win-win situation.”

This is simply not the case, as there are substantial costs associated with the new policy. Though smoking may be disgusting or irrational to some, we should not lose sight of the fact that it is a legal and legitimate behavior. Forcing students out into the cold Williamstown night in order to have a cigarette seems unreasonable, especially since the current policy already protects all members of the community from being disturbed by someone else’s smoking.

So what are the benefits of the new policy? President Schapiro said yesterday the policy has been changed because “secondhand smoke causes cancer,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We are not about to dispute the generally accepted fact that secondhand smoke can cause cancer. But it would be useful to have a full understanding of the EPA’s finding. Specifically, the EPA’s finding that second-hand smoke can cause cancer in humans has been vacated by a U.S. District Court due to the flimsy science it was based on.

As Judge William Osteen explained: “[The] EPA publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun. . . adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate the Agency’s public conclusion. . .. disregarded information and made findings on selective information. . . and left significant questions without answers. . . While so doing, EPA produced limited evidence, then claimed the weight of the Agency’s research evidence demonstrated [second-hand smoke] causes cancer.”

Looking over the evidence, it strikes us that while working in a smoke-filled bar for decades on end will probably lead to an increased risk of cancer in nonsmokers, living down the hall from somebody for nine months who smokes behind a closed door is not the end of the world. If you see the issue differently than we, however, note the current policy allows for our different feelings on the subject to be respected – the new policy does not.

Dean Roseman also cited a study by the HSPH that found “nonsmoking students have a 40 percent less chance of becoming smokers if they live in a smoke-free dorm.” It appears the administration is misreading the study’s finding, however.

The study looked at 101 schools offering smoke-free housing options. It found only 10 percent of nonsmokers who chose to live in smoke-free houses became smokers, while 16.9 percent of nonsmokers in smoking houses go on to smoke. The problem with this study, as even Wechsler himself admits, is self-selection. That is, students who voluntarily choose to live in a smoke-free house are obviously going to be less likely to start smoking than those who pass on this option. To devise campus policy from a tautological study like this one is not good practice.

The most persuasive argument the College has advanced is what President Schapiro called “the added benefit of reducing the risk of fire.” If the College believed that smoking actually posed a serious threat to student safety in the form of a fire – as opposed to the straw man of secondhand smoke – then a persuasive case could be made for curtailing the liberty of the smoker. Insofar as the College acknowledges that reducing the “risk of fire” is not a reason for instituting a smoking ban, but rather an added benefit, it seems to have agreed with us that a student accidentally burning down his dorm is simply not a credible threat to students at Williams.

Ultimately, it is concerning that the administration has decided it is going to start making lifestyle decisions on behalf of its students. Most of us would probably agree that smoking is an undesirable habit, but the idea that a smoker could not reasonably have come to the decision that the benefit of smoking is worth the risk of cancer is paternalistic to say the least. Students make similar decisions regarding drinking alcohol, eating cheeseburgers and playing rugby all the time. Can we expect the administration to put an end to these practices as well?

We urge the administration to remember that the issue of a smoking ban was debated in College Council (CC) on Nov. 20, 2002, and CC voted not to support a ban on smoking in dorms. The College’s current smoking policy allows individual students to arrive at a reasonable solution to the issue of dormitory smoking based on their personal tastes and desires. It is a policy that works well and we see no reason to disrupt that balance.