About 1000 universities in the U.S. follow the recent trend of having a tobacco-free campus. This means that no one is allowed to use any form of tobacco anywhere on university property, indoors or outdoors, no matter how remote the location. Is such a policy ethical?

This issue was raised by a recent proposal to ban tobacco use on the Carnegie Mellon University campus.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

3 responses »

  1. John Hooker says:

    The usual justification for prohibiting tobacco use is that second-hand smoke adversely affects health. However, it defies common sense to suppose that smoking outdoors, at a distance from doorways and pathways, is harmful to others. In fact, universities (until recently) found it adequate to restrict smokers to certain outdoor areas. The point applies even more strongly to smokeless tobacco.

    When pressed on this, tobacco-free advocates generally advance one of two arguments:

    (a) Cigarette butts and the like contaminate the environment.
    (b) A tobacco-free policy discourages an unhealthy habit.

    Both are utilitarian arguments: a tobacco-free policy makes us better off overall. However, the utilitarian principle only requires us to maximize net expected utility subject to generalizability and respect for autonomy. A tobacco ban may violate autonomy by unnecessarily restricting an individual’s choice to smoke.

    One can argue that prohibiting unethical behavior is not a violation of autonomy (see this for why). This supports argument (a), because contaminating the environment is unethical. However, the argument fails if smokers are willing to use trash receptacles in smoking areas. One might claim that it is unethical for them to impose the expense of providing receptacles, but we need an argument for this. Universities provide trash cans for students who buy from campus food vendors, and we don’t say these students are unethical on this account.

    This leaves argument (b), which is frankly paternalistic. Paternalism can be ethical, but not when it violates autonomy.

    One might argue that a tobacco ban doesn’t violate autonomy because harming oneself with tobacco use is nonutilitarian and therefore unethical. It ultimately imposes a burden on society, if only in the form of higher health costs. However, there is evidence that tobacco use actually reduces total health costs, because smokers die sooner. The issue is complicated and controversial, but a smoker satisfies the utilitarian principle if it is not irrational to believe that his or her actions maximize net utility. A smoker with cancer imposes a burden of care on family, but we all depart this world one way or another and are likely to impose a burden in our last days. A tobacco habit is doubtless unethical for some individuals because of its eventual impact on family and associates, but perhaps not for others in a different life situation. All are equally affected by a tobacco ban.

    Even if others are unaffected, tobacco use may be nonutilitarian simply due to its effect on the smoker. The utilitarian principle counts one’s own utility as well as that of others. There is little doubt that smoking degrades the health and lifespan of the population as a whole, and so it may seem that a rational individual should recognize that smoking reduces his or her own welfare and is therefore unethical. However, this does not follow. Smoking may not impose a net cost for an individual even if it does in the aggregate. It depends on the individual’s age, preferences, ability to break the habit, discount rate for future consequences, and current state of health. A tobacco ban applies to everyone, regardless of these factors, and therefore violates autonomy.

    The situation may be different for undergraduate students, who arguably consent to the university’s acting in loco parentis when they matriculate. The university may even have a duty to take paternalistic measures in their case. This does not apply, however, to graduate students, faculty, staff, and contractors who work on campus. In any case, restricting tobacco use to certain outdoor areas may sufficiently discourage undergraduate smoking to satisfy any paternalistic obligations. For example, smoking areas could be located far from undergraduate housing.

    One should also consider that a university hosts faculty and students from cultures where smoking is not only common but seen in a different light. As individualistic Americans, we have an implicit faith in our ability to control our own destiny and therefore tend to hold people responsible for their fate. If someone contracts cancer, we immediately look to voluntary lifestyle choices that could be responsible for it. Many other cultures emphasize the extent to which people are at the mercy of larger forces beyond their control. We Americans may believe that people should convert to our worldview when coming to a U.S. university to study or teach, but we do not hold ourselves to that standard. Few of us abandon our individualistic perspective when working abroad. Perhaps we should therefore make allowances for the many cultural backgrounds represented on campus.

    I conclude that a campus-wide tobacco ban is unethical, unless it is the only way to prevent tobacco users from creating a mess with their refuse. A ban may be defensible for undergraduate students, but beyond this, any legitimate purposes of a ban are achieved by setting aside certain outdoor areas for tobacco use. The same strategy may also meet any university obligation to act in loco parentis where undergraduates are concerned.


    • 12-year Non-Smoker says:

      I agree with every point you have made and have voiced some of the same arguments, although not nearly as eloquently and fully as you have. Thank you for saying what I have been thinking for a long time!


  2. John Hooker says:

    Update: The CMU Faculty Senate voted down the tobacco-free campus proposal by a wide margin.


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