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Opinion | ‘Arguments’ smoke and mirrors

Prof Janet Hoek defends the University of Otago’s smoke-free policy from criticism it impinges on minority freedoms.

Joss Miller’s opinion piece (24.2.14) calling on the University of Otago Council to rescind its policy declaring the campus smoke-free makes a number of erroneous assumptions and, not surprisingly, arrives at flawed conclusions.

First, the smoke-free campus policy has been widely publicised among staff and students.

Mr Miller seems surprised there has not been more public comment on the policy; I suggest this is because the policy has such strong support from all stakeholders.

Mr Miller’s assertion that ”there did not appear to be anything wrong with the previous policy”, is clearly undermined by the overwhelming support for the new policy.

Second, Mr Miller adopts the classic tobacco industry argument that smokers make an ”informed choice” to smoke.

In fact, very few smokers make anything approaching a rational decision to smoke, and virtually none has any comprehension of how addictive nicotine is.

Ironically, Mr Miller argues smokers should have the freedom to smoke when, in fact, addiction to nicotine robs smokers of freedom and constrains their lifestyles.

He conveniently overlooks the fact that half of all long-term smokers will die of a disease caused by their addiction, and that well over 80% regret having started smoking and would not smoke, if they could live their lives again.

Third, the university’s decision to declare a smoke-free campus is neither draconian nor discriminatory. Smokers are free to smoke if they wish; the only difference now is they must do so outside the campus perimeter.

This measure is entirely consistent with smoke-free policies in other universities and with the university’s commitment to the health and safety of its staff and students. Fourth, the policy implementation has been considered and transparent.

Since May 2013, details of the new policy have been clearly communicated to staff and students, the university has funded training of Quit Advisers, who are available to support those staff or students who smoke and wish to quit, and it has refunded prescription costs incurred by staff and students obtaining nicotine replacement therapies.

This support goes beyond that provided by any other New Zealand university and is in line with international best practice.

Finally, the slippery slope argument Mr Miller produces is a hoary old chestnut, used when all other arguments fail.

Restrictions on the sale and promotion of tobacco have been in place for more than 20 years, so if the ”slippery slope” argument had any credence we would expect to see some evidence of it by now. But there is none.

Fortunately, the University of Otago is a research-led institution that, quite properly, bases its decision-making on the best data available, not spurious arguments.

Let’s put Mr Miller’s claims in context. Evidence from the millions of formerly secret tobacco industry documents reveals how important youth and young adult smokers are to the industry’s long-term profitability.

The tobacco industry lied for decades about the health risks of smoking and were recently tried and convicted in the United States under legislation designed to control racketeering and corruption by organisations.

In the judge’s words: ”Over the course of more than 50 years, defendants lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public, including smokers and the young people they avidly sought as `replacement’ smokers, about the devastating health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke.”

This is the ”freedom” Joss Miller and the tobacco industry are so keen to protect.

The University of Otago is rightly proud of its commitment to social responsibility; its smoke-free policy draws on the knowledge and expertise of its research staff and amply demonstrates its willingness to act as a thoughtful ”critic and conscience of society”.

By contrast, Mr Miller proposes an autocracy, in which he is sole arbiter of the ”fair and reasonable”, irrespective of research evidence or public opinion.

Prof Janet Hoek is a professor of marketing at the University of Otago. She is co-director of the ASPIRE2025 research theme and co-chairs the Smoke-free Campus Working Group.

For more information please contact:

Professor Janet Hoek
University of Otago
email: janet.hoek@otago.ac.nz