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Dan Bernick
Dan Straight

Credit: Dan Bernick

Over 600,000 people die every year from secondhand smoke. Perhaps this is why nearly 600 United States colleges have already gone 100-percent smoke-free. Penn should follow their example and implement a tobacco-free campus.

Tobacco policy is extremely controversial, and there are both philosophical and practical objections to restricting tobacco. As Penn begins to explore a tobacco-free campus, we should all be aware of what is at stake.

We know tobacco kills half of its users via heart disease and cancer. More relevant for students, smoking can damage memory and brain functioning, increase stress, waste money and cause psychological harm and hygiene problems. These factors compound to make smoking a destructive habit for Penn students.

Those who survive college will have a hard time finding a job. A number of businesses no longer hire smokers (Penn hospitals are considering a similar policy). Smokers who can find jobs will be hard-pressed to work in buildings that are increasingly smoke-free. Moreover, some companies are increasing healthcare premiums for smokers; some smokers cannot even work at Wal-Mart without paying an extra $2,000 per year.

Opponents argue a tobacco-free campus would infringe on smokers’ rights. Ironically, 70 percent of smokers want to quit, but nicotine is too addictive. More than half of smokers discount the risks (including how difficult it is to quit later in life) and many cannot exercise self-control.

Smoking is also not a choice in that it targets specific constituencies. Veterans and LGBT high-school students are more likely to smoke, and tobacco companies have targeted women with advertising campaigns. This proves social pressures and other factors determine who smokes, regardless of personal preferences. Many of these smokers are happy to find that a ban helps them quit.

Advocates also respond by defending a nonsmoker’s right to clean air. The Surgeon General has concluded there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. This may be why secondhand smoke is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. The user inhales only 15 percent of smoke; the rest lingers in the air and can cause immediate respiratory damage. A tobacco-free campus would protect nonsmokers from toxic chemicals that are currently unavoidable.

Finally, tobacco-free campuses are inevitable. Society is changing (a majority of Americans now favor a public ban), and where tobacco bans have been implemented, public opinion has shifted. Clean air laws are increasingly prevalent and powerful, and Mayor Michael Nutter is aggressively pushing on this front. Penn will soon be required to go cold turkey.

But if we start now, we can transition at our own pace. This will give current smokers more time to adapt (taking advantage of Penn’s smoking cessation resources). Even if students start smoking after they graduate, delaying starting can reduce health problems and use of other hard drugs.

Penn also benefits from early action by reaffirming its public health leadership. We will be the first of our peers to implement a tobacco-free policy, which they will all be imitating in a few short years. Penn’s leadership will not only improve our reputation and increase social welfare, but it will also save money on cleaning up cigarette butts, protect the environment and reduce liability risks, which could cost us millions.

A tobacco-free campus will not come about overnight. Enforcement and other logistical concerns must be addressed, and not everyone will be enthusiastic about this change. But, in the end, a tobacco-free campus is in the best interests of smokers, nonsmokers and the young people who look to role models at institutions like ours for making a decision to become one or the other.

As interim measures, Penn should look into divesting from tobacco, banning advertisements, reducing the sale of cigarettes on campus and enforcing current laws.

Tobacco kills, and society is invariably catching up to this sad truth. Penn should take the lead while it still can and transition to a tobacco-free campus.

The future is kind to those who create it.

Dan Bernick is a College sophomore from Mendota Heights, Minn. He is a College representative on the Undergraduate Assembly. His email address is Dan Straight appears every other Tuesday.

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