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Smoking students out

Martin Ball of the smokers' rights group FOREST laments the intolerance of Britain's universities

In my youth, I certainly bought into the image of university as the gateway to independence, the time to break free and forge my own way in life. College was a place where it was possible - indeed obligatory - to open your mind, reject dogma, and experience a new understanding of the world around us. I welcomed no longer having to live by other people's rules, and being able to make my own life choices.

Yet the desire of today's students to rid themselves of the 'hand of nanny' is threatened by university authorities which are striving to replace parents as paternalist watchdogs. Nowhere is this threat more pressing than in the designs of campus fag-fascists to coerce students, and staff, into giving up smoking.

A survey by the smokers' rights group FOREST has revealed that, far from embracing social and cultural diversity, British universities are at the forefront of attempts to stamp out smoking in 'public' buildings. Of the 91 universities featured in the survey, every single one imposes severe restrictions on where it is permissible to light up - and 27 universities ban it completely. A few extend prohibition to university-owned vehicles (although so far they stop short of attempts by local councils to ban smoking in private cars if used on official business, or if parked in a council car park).

While smokers have not yet been banned from lighting up outdoors, the unspoken message is that they should refrain from creating a bad public image at entrances and, if possible, indulge their habit surreptitiously. Where staff are permitted to smoke in their own offices they must keep the door shut and draw the blinds. Free advice and help on cessation is ever present, although it sometimes seems a less-than-voluntary option.

Exeter University alone exhibited a modicum of sanity. 'There is a need...to act reasonably towards smokers', it declares, 'which means that people who wish to smoke should, where this is practically possible, have a place where they are able to do so'. Compared to other universities this is progressive stuff - but it is just an indication of how hostile the others are.

It is the determination to enforce strict anti-smoking rules that is most striking. Luton University even raises the prospect of the ultimate sanction. According to its student handbook, the no smoking rule is 'rigorously enforced' and 'students who break this rule may be required to terminate their course of study'. The suggestion that smoking is a sufficient crime to justify expulsion indicates the extent to which the anti-smoker agenda has created a climate of false priorities.

Why single out academia for criticism, when it is simply mirroring the wider community? Quite simply because we expect better of our centres of learning. Universities should not slavishly enforce the obsessive fashions of our age.

This may be a romantic view and an unrealistic expectation of the modern monoliths universities have developed into, but they market themselves as enlightened communities promoting a vibrant diversity, and cannot expect to get away with duping us as to their true ethos.

Dr Bill Thompson of the University of Reading strikes at the very heart of the matter when he explains how 'the draconian anti-smoking policies in most universities today belie two of their most cherished values. Far from being liberal, enlightened institutions, the way most measures are introduced - without any warning, discussion or debate - demonstrates that universities are run by autocratic regimes. Their administrations do not tolerate democracy, let alone dissent'.

Even at establishments that make available a small number of designated smoking areas, you will often find that they are for staff and not the disenfranchised student. So, despite stated goals of equality of access, it is clear that students are in the second rank of a two-tier system. Such social exclusion is compounded by the prevalence among smokers of women and those in the lower socioeconomic groups. That's enough of a political correctness minefield to give any recruitment officer palpitations.

The universal justification for introducing a smoking ban is the fraudulent claim that exposure to other people's smoke poses a serious health risk to the non-smoker. Yet this rotten science is repeatedly exposed for being just that. Last year the World Health Organisation was forced to confess that its figures linking 'passive smoking' and lung cancer were not 'statistically significant'; and the Health and Safety Executive recently admitted that 'passive smoking' claims would be 'very difficult to prove given the state of the scientific evidence'.

Sadly, the willingness of universities to accept uncritically that 'passive smoking' is an absolute and fixed truth says more about them than a thousand research assessments ever could do. Imposing lifestyle prohibitions on the basis of bogus science is both unethical and immoral. It is the kind of sloppy thinking that would be thrown out if a student presented it for marking.

The fact that our leading centres of learning are so ready to engage in social persecution makes a mockery of their claim to be enlightened enclaves defending individual liberty. Universities may preach tolerance and diversity, but they practise prejudice and discrimination.

Martin Ball is campaigns director of the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000



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