By now the dangers of smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are so well established that hardly anyone disputes the risks they pose to public health and well-being. Every year some 390,000 Americans die from smoking-related illnesses, and tobacco contributes to 1 out of every 6 deaths annually in this country. That's why we applaud Towson University's decision last week to ban smoking everywhere on its campus. We only wonder why it took the university this long to take a step that so obviously benefits its students and the entire school community.
Smoking is already banned inside most schools, hospitals, offices, public buildings and restaurants in the state. Lighting up is also prohibited on the grounds of public elementary and secondary schools. But Towson will be Maryland's first four-year college to ban smoking anywhere on its grounds. Whatever inconvenience that may cause some students and staff will surely be made up for by the prospect of a healthier, cleaner environment for everyone.
Last year, Montgomery College, which offers a two-year program, became the first Maryland institution of higher learning to ban smoking on its campus. It was followed by community colleges in Harford, Frederick and Carroll counties. Nationwide, about 365 colleges and universities no longer permit smoking anywhere on campus, including the entire Pennsylvania state university system.
College students are just entering adulthood, and we ordinarily support their right to be free from the pressure of campus authority figures and allowed to make their own decisions, good or bad. For that reason, last week we supported the University System of Maryland's decision not to adopt rules on campus screenings of pornography. But smoking is different. First, the nature of secondhand smoke means that others suffer the consequences of one person's bad habit; and second, the addictive nature of smoking makes it one bad decision that can be impossible to recover from.
There's good reason for schools to take strong measures to discourage smoking. Studies have shown that most adult smokers took up the habit while still in their teens: Some 90 percent of all smokers start before the age of 18, and the average age for a new smoker is just 13.
But by the time young people reach their 20s, their chances of becoming addicted drop drastically. If a young person can stay away from tobacco until he or she graduates from college, the likelihood of their ever falling victim to a smoking-related illness is relatively small.
Drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes into the wee hours while preparing for exams or writing end-of-term papers were once hallowed college traditions. But that was before the long-term health consequences of such behaviors became apparent. Smoking is a bigger killer of Americans than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, murders, suicides, drugs and fires combined. It is the number one preventable cause of illness and death in the United States today.
Surely colleges and universities should be doing everything possible to steer young people away from such a deadly habit. Towson has done its students and their families a big favor by making it harder to get hooked on its campus after the new policy goes into effect in August. But it shouldn't be the state's only four-year tobacco-free zone. Maryland's other public colleges and universities need to get on board as well, and for the sake of the health and welfare of their students and staff, the sooner they do it the better.
I am vehemently opposed to Towson University's decision to establish a smoke-free campus next August. As a nonsmoker, I believe it will be a waste of the university's valuable time and resources to enforce this policy when the current rule that smokers must be 30 feet away from any building entrance is not even enforced.
It's also important to note that the Student Government Association considered a total of five resolutions expressing various degrees of support for the ban last spring, and all were voted down.
In October the student senate voted to commit to work with university officials to help students during the transition process, but that should not be mistaken for support. The SGA is evenly divided on the issue.
Lauren McDade, Towson
The writer is a Towson University senior and a senator in the Student Government Association.