Smoking Ban Leads to Vigilantism

Outside of the Michael C. Carlos Museum I met with a friend of mine. Out of the blue a stranger, without my friend’s consent, took his photograph. I have heard other students mention similar incidents happening to them since the beginning of the semester. To be sure, each of these students were doing the same thing when they had their photograph taken: they were violating Emory’s tobacco-free policy.

Emory is tobacco-free in name only. Every day many students, professors, visitors, doctors and other Emory employees smoke cigarettes on campus. There has yet to be a day that I walk on campus and fail to see at least one person smoking a cigarette. 

It isn’t that many of these smokers want to openly break the policy, that they feel “cool” or rebellious or any of that nonsense. It’s simply that they think they can be the circumstantial exception to the rule. Human nature dictates that nobody wants to feel like a sucker, and current enforcement makes circumvention of the smoking ban child’s play.

To be clear, “It harms your health” is a reason not to smoke in general. But it’s an inadequate reason for the ban because the implication is that the University can control what we do with our bodies. Currently two-thirds of colleges in the United States have a tobacco ban in place. Emory, more or less a corporate entity, wants to maintain its edge among other universities and remain attractive to potential students. This is obviously not the sole motive, but it appears, to me, to be the primary one.

But should a tobacco-free policy be given any credence in judging a university when that ban is not even remotely reflective of the reality of smoking at Emory? The mere existence of the tobacco-free policy, regardless of enforcement, appears to adequately satisfy the administration. Yet the real reason smoking remains rampant on campus is not because of the administration’s apathy towards enforcement but rather that the administration does not have the resources to effectively accomplish total enforcement by itself. Therefore, it has developed a program that employs student enforcers, of which there are currently four. These students are trained and given the green light to monitor Emory’s campus for violators.

Frequent violators will be disciplined, or so the legend goes.

In addition, photographers are no doubt hard at work collecting data on frequent smokers and popular locations. They are not the four students being paid to monitor campus for tobacco use. They are self-employed individuals who have not thought through the consequences of their actions.

Let us call this new trend of photographing students without their permission what it really is: vigilante snitch culture. Emory could pat itself on the back for making its community more involved. But this creates a hostile, distrustful social environment.

It is strictly the revocation of the implicit right to govern one’s health that is unjust on the administration’s part, and this revocation comes with equally unjust consequences like vigilante photographers taking it upon themselves to gather intelligence on targeted smokers, presumably to build a case against them.

Smoking, indoors and outdoors, used to be a cultural norm. Due to growing evidence over recent decades that the practice has devastating effects on the smoker’s body, smoking has begun to fade as a cultural norm. Now, in light of evidence that smoking can harm others secondhand, the question of its legality as a public practice has arisen. As of the beginning of this year, 32 states have banned smoking in all public non-hospitality indoor facilities. The reasons for banning indoor smoking are straightforward: it’s concentrated and therefore bothersome to others, harmful to their health and a fire hazard all around. 

Smoking outdoors, however, can only be legitimately banned on the basis of its secondhand effects. Each of us has the right to control what goes into our bodies, but none of us has the right to do so at the expense of others’ health.

But this is not the position that the University has taken in producing its tobacco-free policy. Instead it has taken the paternalistic stance that smokers do not understand what it is they are doing to themselves.

Nobody is arguing that smoking tobacco products isn’t bad for one’s health. Most people know it, smokers and non-smokers alike. Smokers hardly lose sight of the possibility of quitting; at the very least they carry it in the back of their minds. Further, this is not anything like a blanket condemnation of anti-smoking efforts. No rational individual, for instance, would label the tobacco cessation programs here at Emory as oppressive or unjust.

It is strictly the revocation of the implicit right to govern one’s health that is unjust on the administration’s part, and this revocation comes with equally unjust consequences like vigilante photographers taking it upon themselves to gather intelligence on targeted smokers, presumably to build a case against them.

But it would be unreasonable to expect the administration to repeal its tobacco-free policy anytime in the near future, if ever. So in the meantime, if you do not want to have your photograph taken, you should avoid smoking or standing next to a smoker while on campus.


Assistant Editorials Editor Erik Alexander is a College junior from Johns Creek, Georgia.

0 comments