By Daniel Strawhun, Opinions Editor
It is hard to overlook the fact that the University of Missouri-St. Louis is a tobacco-free campus, given that the phrase is proudly plastered and placarded over nearly every vertical surface on campus, be it window, door, or wall. It seems if there is one crucial thing that visitors to UMSL should know by the time they leave, it is that absolutely no one was smoking, chewing, vaporizing, transdermally absorbing, or otherwise consuming any tobacco products whatsoever during the visit. Not a soul. Nobody. “No ifs ands or butts,” as the signs themselves remind.
But this is simply not the case, as anyone who has unwittingly sat outside the entrance to the Social Sciences & Business Building between the hours of 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. knows. There, UMSL smokers join in solidarity, gathering round a double-sided no-smoking sign in what looks like the world’s most casual protest—all, of course, with cigarette in hand. The carcinogenic plumes these dissenters emit are vexing to passersby who, within a 10-minute walk to class, have already been told in at least five different places that this a tobacco-free campus. How utterly absurd then, to walk right into a cloud of such outright contradiction!
But the rationale behind UMSL’s tobacco-freeness evinces an even larger, ideological contradiction which underlies the whole situation.
The no-smoking signs state that the UMSL campus is tobacco-free “to promote a healthier community,” which sounds noble enough at first, if a bit idealistic. But what does that phrase “a healthier community” actually mean, anyway? Surely someone could abstain from using tobacco products and yet still be unhealthy, no? To equate not using tobacco with healthy living would be downright silly, and admittedly, the signs do not do this. They do not say, for example, “tobacco-free. . .to promote a healthy community”; rather, they use the comparative adjective “healthier,” which implies that while not using tobacco will generally improve health, there are still other factors that further contribute to a person’s overall wellness—one does not simply become healthy by not smoking, only healthier. So the question that logically arises from all this is “In what other ways are UMSL students unhealthy?”
The most obvious answer to this question is that many UMSL students are obese. I personally have seen students who cannot even walk down a normal desk aisle unimpeded by their own largeness; I have even had to physically move my desk in order to make more room for them. All anecdotal evidence aside, obesity is an undeniable problem in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found in 2015 that 30 percent of adult Americans over the age of 20 were obese. N.B. the terminology used here—the study found that 30 percent of American adults were obese, which means that they had a Body Mass Index greater than 30. This percentage does not include, for instance, people who are simply overweight. In other words, 30 percent of adult Americans are at risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis, gout, and sleep apnea, many of which are also negative effects of smoking tobacco. But as American obesity is on the rise, up more than 10 percent since 1997, smoking has been on the decline: only 15 percent of Americans over the age of 18 used smoking tobacco in 2015—exactly half the amount of those who were obese.
But despite these hard numbers, the powers that be at UMSL—and at universities across the country for that matter—have illogically decided to wage war against the statistically lesser evil by completely prohibiting tobacco use campus wide, all while doing little to nothing to address the obesity epidemic. UMSL’s tobacco-free policy was enacted Jan. 1 2012, at a time when the CDC reported that 18 percent of adults in the U.S. were using tobacco products, in contrast to the nearly 27 percent who were obese. Moreover, the prohibition has not worked—it never does, does it? Unrealistic, draconian policies are simply ignored, and as a result UMSL looks foolish and impotent. UMSL should simply designate the area in front of the SSB as a smoking lounge, since it is already used as such regardless of the abundant signs. A policy of containment is the only realistic response to this situation. Plus, a smoking lounge comes complete with ashtrays, which would allow smokers to dispose of their cigarette butts safely and properly, rather than just tossing them on the ground, the current protocol.
However, a retraction of the tobacco-free policy is not likely to come anytime soon. For now, the crusade against tobacco is just too fashionable amongst the middle-class to abandon it for more practicable solutions. And likewise, it seems that the problem of obesity will remain unaddressed, ignored. Just try to imagine UMSL enacting an outright ban on fried foods and soda, a correlative equivalent to the tobacco ban—it seems laughably dictatorial. But if UMSL were genuinely concerned about promoting “a healthier community,” this is exactly what they would do. So the question I would like to propose to readers in conclusion is this: Does UMSL’s ban on smoking come out of a genuine concern for students’ health, or is it simply a vapid attempt to fall in line with the petty, priggish social mores of the modern middle-class?