University of Michigan: Teacher Yes, Father No

by Mario Rizzo  


The University of Michigan has announced that it will become completely smoke-free in 2011.   


The University has chosen parentalism (in loco parentis) over encouraging the development of responsible, intelligent adults capable of making choices for themselves.


Normally, I would refer to such policies as paternalism but in this context in which a university is involved with the nurturing of young adults, the former term seems appropriate. But unlike normal parents, however, the school is an organ of the state (here, Michigan). So there is a case for the (legal) paternalism description as well.


Before we even get to the reasons for this policy, however, we are told, as in many cases of abridging liberty, it is both no big deal and an important innovation for the public good.


“Several years ago we committed to the MHealthy initiative to improve the health of our community. The decision to become smoke free is a logical and important extension of that commitment, and an expansion of existing practice.”  From President Mary Sue Coleman’s letter to the campus community.


The implication is “if we have done that, it is natural we should do this.”  It is a mere extension of our concern for your health, which surely you appreciate. So now just a little change and great health riches will fall upon you.


So why has the University of Michigan decided to do this?


1. “This will help reduce the risks of second-hand smoke and ensure a healthier environment for faculty, staff, students and visitors.” From President Coleman’s letter to the campus community.


In order to avoid accusations of outright parentalism, they try to invoke a version of “harm to others” by implying that the exposure to second-hand smoke in a casual context is a significant health danger. There is a vast literature on this. However, there is no evidence that exposure outside of the home or of prolonged exposure in enclosed rooms without ventilation is a problem for people of normal health. Remember that the University of Michigan has already banned smoking in classrooms and other indoor locations. (Note: the only evidence cited is “… [S]tudies indicate a 20-percent to 30-percent increase in the risk of lung cancer from secondhand smoke exposure associated with living with a smoker.”)



2. “A healthier, smoke-free physical environment will only enhance the intellectual vigor of our campuses,” said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman.”  From the University of Michigan news release.


I have never heard this before. There are some studies that indicate smoking actually can increase mental focus. However, even without accepting this, I wonder what studies support this statement. It would be an interesting experiment to see whether after this change the University of Michigan rises in some measures of intellectual achievement. Empirical testing, you know.


Of course, the reality is the intellectual vigor claim is just one of those platitudes so characteristic of university bureaucracies and their press releases.


3. The most important reason is revealed indirectly, however, in the following statement at the conclusion of the news release:


“There’s a strong business case for encouraging employees to quit smoking. Male smokers miss 3.9 more days of work per year than non-smoking males, and female smokers miss an additional 2.1 days of work per year. A 1996 study by Warner and colleagues also found that workplace smoking cessation programs reduce health care costs, absenteeism costs, on-the-job productivity losses and life insurance costs.”


The University is also making all manner of smoking-cessation aids available. I doubt, but cannot prove, that the loss of a few days of work – assuming the applicability of these general studies to the University of Michigan’s community with its distinct demographics – is a real reason for the ban. I believe it is simply a pretext.


The main point, however, is that they are trying to making the campus as unfriendly to smokers as possible. They cannot smoke in private offices, bathrooms, closets, corridors, classrooms and – when the new policy comes into effect – outside of buildings, rooftops, etc. To smoke people must leave the campus. I have no idea how inconvenient this would be. But the point is clear: You cannot smoke but, mercifully, we’ll help you stop.


This is clearly parentalism toward the students and paternalism by a state entity toward employees.


We can argue about the benefits and costs of smoking and whether smoking can be “rational.” We can argue about whether smokers really want to quit or whether they simply feel that they “should” quit in some ideal world in which there are no costs of stopping. Or perhaps they simply want to appear to want to quit because that will make them more socially acceptable. These are legitimate topics for discussion and research.


The main point, however, is that what business is it of a state-agency (The University of Michigan) to impose its view of health morality on students and employees? People’s goals in life are more complex than simply maximizing their health. We all have different perspectives. True, we have foibles, imperfect willpower and so forth. But we have the means of changing if we want to. But many of us do not wish to expend the effort or incur the costs. Such people want magic.


If universities want to accept a role as “parents” then they should try to encourage wisdom, knowledge and self-control by providing information but not by restricting this kind of behavior. Self-control is part of what can make us into better people – but it must be self-control.


I think that the words of the linguist and political philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792) are appropriate in cases such as these. Speaking of the dangers of State paternalism in The Limits of State Action, he says:


“If men were left to their own deeds and devices, deprived of all outside help that they did not manage to obtain themselves, they would also frequently run into difficulty and misfortune whether through their own fault or not. But the happiness for which each man is destined is none other than that which he achieves by his own energies. And it is these very situations which sharpen a man’s mind and develop his character.”  


 (Hat tip to Tyler Cowen for the University Michigan link.)













19 thoughts on “University of Michigan: Teacher Yes, Father No

  1. Zac,

    Unfortunately, true. But just think of a 55 year-old professor who is employed at Michigan but cannot smoke either in his own private office with or without the window open or anywhere on campus.

  2. It’s weird that things that were considered acceptable risks a generation ago are now considered lethal, even though knowledge about relative risks were already present then. I remember growing up and riding a bicycle without a helmet, and it was considered entirely normal. Now even adults are encouraged to don a helmet. Actually, I would guess that both smoking and riding a bike without a helmet are somewhat safer now than before, due to better health care, better air quality, and better roads.

    Sometimes I wonder why mountain climbing, adventure tourism and even transportation are still permitted. Surely everyone would be safer if they lived in campus-like environments with trans-fat-free cafeterias, exercise facilities, no cars, no smoking, home offices and only video conferencing (lest we forget the danger of pandemics).

  3. The vacuous platitudes of boring education bureaucrats aside, I see no problem with this policy. I just wish they would jettison all the stupid excuses and say “your smoke stinks, you stink, take your stinky habit off campus.”

    Only if they banned smoking by students and staff ANYWHERE would this be uncomfortable, and then only because it’s a state entity.

  4. True this policy is about paternalism. As a recent U-M grad, I have no problem believing that the opportunity to dictate the lives of U-M students is more than enough for Michigan to move forward.

    But the paternalism here is directed less and students and more at staff.

    The Ann Arbor News reported last week that U-M will provide faculty and staff with “free behavioral programs to help them quit smoking, along with free or discounted over-the-counter smoking cessation products.”

    The move is likely more about saving on health insurance costs than about providing students with healthy life options. Especially given that the jurisdiction of campus police is small. Staff is likely to be most curtailed in smoking.

  5. Jeremy fails to see that the University of Michigan is, first, a state-entity so it is not like a private university establishing a particular atmosphere (like even a religious one), and, second, that the policy is unwise from a “parental” point of view because it makes students even more into children than some of them are.

  6. No, this is the “speed-limit” fallacy — because the state owns the roads, they have no right to dictate the speed limit. It’s of course false — now, this might not be a good expample because they have since come out with studies showing that roads without speed limits are as safe or safer than those with. But I digress.

    A school, even a state one, should also probably require students to wear clothing. It should also probably require action if, say, a student hasn’t bathed in a month. It should also, reasonably, ban smoking on campus if it is deemed a nuisance. The people making these decisions would have to make them whether they worked for a public or private school. So I don’t see why it’s different here.

    Again, my only objection is their rhetorical gymnastics. Just say it stinks up the place and be done with it. All the other excuses open them up to Mario’s kind of (legitimate) scrutiny.

  7. I can think of a lot of stinky things that I would ban, so I don’t think “stinky” is actually the reason. Some people even have stinky feet, body odor, breath, etc from eating healthful garlic.
    No,I don’t think it is this particular health issue either. Social responsibility programs whether private or public are driven by the hip new thing: Che shirts, “green”, pink (red, yellow, etc.) ribbons, seat belt use, anti religion and anti smoking campaigns are all furiously attacked and publicized in an inverse relationship to how important they actually are in the big scheme of things. They are generated like most “true believing” movements, to give those promoting them a worth in life.

  8. Jeremy,

    You are correct in that state-entities, *insofar as they exist*, need to have certain “rules of the road” so to speak. Yes, state universities can require that students bathe occasionally, etc. The problem is when the go beyond what is necessary and conducive to a good learning environment. I do not think they are in the same position as private universities which can require students to go to chapel, not have sex in the dorms and so forth. I should think that precisely because they are state institutions, state universities should go easy on the “extra” requirements. In the same way, just because the state owns the streets doesn’t mean that it can outlaw holding hands on the street.

    It is true that once we enter the realm of what the state can do to restrict behavior on state property we are dealing with an issue that does not admit of an exact solution. But a good rule of thumb is to for the state institution to stick very narrowly to its mission and to make rules consistent only with that.

    Finally, from a “parental” point of view I think students should be treated like adults, even if they are not to get them ready for real life.

  9. I definitely agree on the “parental” point. But I think smoking, as Becky seems to claim, is not merely being stinky. It’s not just a lifestyle choice. It’s projecting stink — and foul chemicals, you simply may not deny — far beyond a reasonable limit.

  10. I think people who care about liberty can disagree legitimately on this one.

    Today I wondered if NYU would ever ban smoking as completely as the U of Michigan. Then I realized we don’t have a campus! NYU would have to ban smoking in the city streets. So I guess NYU is a safe place for people with stinky habits.

  11. It’s just that I think libertarians and such stick up for smoking above and beyond what their ideology should have to say about it. I know people who consider smoking to be aggression — that cigarette smell makes them cough and lingers and travels far. It is pollution on no small scale. So it’s almost as if libertarians champion aggression as long as it’s a vice, too.

  12. Jeremy,

    Remember that preferences are subjective and diverse. There are any number of things that smell good to some and awful to others (for example garlic and durians, the latter being a tropical fruit with an extremely strong smell). The basic free-market solution is to separate the users from the non-users, with no need for a shared understanding of what constitutes a “vice.” However, the unintended consequence of banning indoor “externalities” between consenting adults is to increase real externalities on public roads. The best response would be to privatize all spaces that are worth privatizing, and letting the owners set their own policies, but instead smokers are penalized for complying with counterproductive public policies. But I would guess that the aim of most “public health” people was never to reduce externalities (a smokescreen), it was always to reduce actions that do not promote the maximization of average life expectancies. And here we get to the real slippery slope that has lots of implications beyond smoking bans.

  13. I have always said, David, that anti-smoking laws are exactly backward — banning smoking indoors has made New York City a gauntlet of cigarette smoking. Every single street is flooded with smoke wafting from the inconsiderate embers and orifices of the forced-out smokers. They should be instead be banned from subjecting people to their mini-pollution on public streets and then if we want to avoid smoking indoors, we know where to go to do so.

    But once again I’d like to point out that smoke does not just smell bad, like a durian. It IS bad. It is dangerous and toxic pollution. A stinky fruit is not. Please remove that fallacy of comparison from your arsenal.

  14. Jeremy,

    We seem to be in general agreement but not in issue-specific agreement. I agree that smoking is a dangerous and potentially lethal activity (30-50% of the time, according to most studies, with a reduced life expectancy of 6-8 years). But there is no statistically significant estimate of increased mortality due to second-hand smoke, unless it refers to daily indoor exposure (such as living with a chain-smoker in a badly ventilated apartment).

    So for the non-smoker, there is really no major difference between second-hand smoke, car exhausts, and factory pollution. On the other hand, factory pollution and car exhausts are not consumption goods, whereas cigarettes and cigars are. Some people like to smoke, in spite of the considerable morbidity/mortality risks, just like some people enjoy riding motorbikes without a helmet, mountain climbing, and consider a military career worth the potentially lethal costs. So if we believe (as I do) that the public domain (streets etc.) should be as tolerant as possible and avoid imposing elite-formulated laws that impose their religion or other value system, it would make most sense to find a compromise that is acceptable to all affected groups. An example could be to set aside 80% of all outdoor public spaces for non-smokers, and 20% for smokers (or whatever the proportion of the population is that actually has decided that smoking is worth the perceived costs).

    If we want to live in a society that does not impose paternalist policies we also have to favor tolerance of certain behaviors that disturb us. And we have to insist that addiction is a choice, not a disease (more than 50% of those who ever smoked in the US are ex-smokers).

  15. Paternalism? Hardly. Quite frankly, I don’t see what the issue is, except to smokers. It is NOT paternalism . . . it is simple logic. Smoking is unhealthy, and second-hand smoke worse. Look at the levels of carcinigens in it. You don’t think that impacts others? That’s a very narcissistic viewpoint.

    Have you thought of those of us who are ALLERGIC and have to walk through it? Of young children visiting campus who have to be subjected to it by kids sitting outside a building, smoking? (Are any of YOU parents of young children? Do you want YOUR baby to have to breathe someone’s smoke?) Or the elderly who also have to walk through it to go to the museum? Do you want your parents or grandparents dealing with this? The campus is NOT only about school – it’s about the culture involved on campus as well. Museums, music venues – have you THOUGHT of those?

    UofM is one of the leading health research institutions in the country. What kind of message does this send if they are doing research to help us all live a longer, healthier life , then allowing smoking on campus? Do you really think they are doing it to PUNISH smokers? Are you REALLY that selfish?

    Think of someone else for a change. Get some common sense. Take it off campus and quit crying about it.

  16. “Look at the levels of carcinigens in it.”
    K– you really don’t want to go down this route else sit in your home with the windows shut and just do not venture out..think diesel, mobile phones and larger beer just for starters. I am not a smoker myself and do object to the recent laws in the UK banning people from smoking in public places pushing large numbers of smokers outside in doorways of all public buildings, but I object more to the nanny state, remove peoples responsibilities and end up with irresponsible people.

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