Smoking and chewing tobacco are unhealthy things to do - nobody disagrees with that. And breathing secondhand smoke is unhealthy too - virtually nobody disagrees with that.
Motivated (presumably) by a noble desire to discourage students from smoking or chewing and to protect non-smokers from exposure to secondhand smoke, Central Oregon Community College appears to be on the verge of approving a "tobacco-free campus" policy. Praiseworthy as the motive may be, the policy goes way too far.
Not satisfied with that, a committee has come up with a recommendation that tobacco use in any form be prohibited everywhere on campus, indoors or out. The committee even wants the City of Bend to forbid smoking on the portion of College Way that runs through the campus. COCC President Jim Middleton seems inclined go along with the committee's proposal.
The idea of banning smoking on College Way is the most obviously absurd part of the proposed tobacco-free policy. As several city councilors have pointed out, it'd be logically impossible to justify prohibiting smoking on one city street and not others. And Bend police surely have better things to do than patrol College Way writing tickets to smoking scofflaws.
But banning smoking or chewing in outdoor areas of campus is almost as silly. Chewing tobacco, of course, poses no health hazard to anybody but the chewer. And while there's no scientifically certified "safe" level of secondhand smoke exposure, the health risk from catching a whiff of smoke outdoors seems almost infinitesimal. Tobacco smoke is not plutonium; inhaling one or two stray molecules of it is not going to give anybody cancer or emphysema. If we're going to prohibit outdoor smoking for health reasons we probably should prohibit outdoor barbecues and campfires too.
The most powerful argument against COCC's proposed tobacco-free policy, however, is that it's an unwarranted infringement on personal freedom. COCC students are not children - in fact their average age is 29, according to the college's website. They don't need a nanny. They have the right to make their own decisions about their health, including whether to smoke or chew. Their decision to use tobacco may be foolish and some may find their habit obnoxious, but in the absence of a compelling public health reason the college has no business interfering with it.
College should be a place of learning, including learning to make the right choices about personal health. But it also should be a place of tolerance, including tolerance for those whose habits and health choices you may disagree with or disapprove of, as long as they're not harming others.
In the spirit of tolerance, and also in the interest of freedom and fairness, we hope President Middleton will join us in giving the misguided tobacco-free policy THE BOOT.