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.)