The College Libertarians handed out free cigarettes and cigars by the Pegasus statue Friday in protest of the proposed SUNY-wide smoking ban, reigniting campus debate about smokers’ rights and the feasibility of enforcement.
SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher proposed the ban, which was approved by the SUNY Board of Trustees over the summer. It was sent to the State Health Committee this month, according to state Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo.
A bill has been introduced to the New York State Assembly that would prohibit smoking on any campus or facility owned by the SUNY system. To become law, the bill would also need to pass through the New York State Senate, where no similar legislation has even been introduced.
The College Libertarians gave away more than 200 cigarettes, which they paid for out of pocket, while they collected signatures for their petition against the ban. Zachary Greenberg, a College Libertarian and a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, smoked a cigar next to Pegasus, which his club covered with a black libertarian flag.
“In New York state you can smoke outdoors in public places and all we want to do is let Binghamton students have the same rights as the rest of New York,” Greenberg said. “Obviously no one wants to have smokers in their living room or in their house, but if you’re outside and not bothering anybody, then you should be able to have a cigarette if you so choose.”
Carl Wiezalis, retired chairman of the Department of Respiratory Care and Cardiorespiratory Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University and the former leader of Nancy Zimpher’s task force, said in an email that smoking is not a civil right.
“Some may believe that freedoms, as in ‘Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness,’ may be broadened to include every conceivable behavior, including the right to smoke,” he wrote. “Well, I am aware of the ‘lining of the path to hell.’”
The College Libertarians collected more than 200 signatures for the petition, which they are sending to the SUNY Board of Trustees. According to club members, signatures came from a fairly even balance of smokers and non-smokers.
“I don’t smoke but I truthfully don’t think it’s right that someone can take my rights away from me. I should be able to choose what’s good and what’s bad for me,” said Anthony Anselmo, a junior majoring in economics and one of the leaders of the protest. “I can understand if you want to have a designated smoking zone on campus or a rule that says you have to smoke x amount of feet away from a building, but why are you going to ban it entirely?”
But Wiezalis said it’s not that simple.
“Since no safe low-level limits have been set for second hand smoke products, it becomes impossible to set ‘safe distance policies,’” he wrote.
Shaymus Contorno, a freshman majoring in management, only smokes occasionally, but says the ban seems unfeasible.
“It would be a real pain the ass to go off campus just to smoke, and it would be really annoying for police officers to have to enforce that kind of law,” he said.
In response to the proposal, the SA created the Smoking Review Committee, which consisted of five undergraduate students.
“The committee talked to a number of campus officials including lieutenant Bay from UPD, and basically it stands to reason that if the full ban went into place UPD would not be able to enforce it,” SA President Mark Soriano said. “They would also not be entirely willing because they have better things to do with their day than stop kids from smoking cigarettes.”
Earlier this semester, the committee created an alternative proposal that would designate certain areas around campus for smoking.
“These designated smoking areas will encourage smokers to congregate in areas where they will not disturb pedestrians, while keeping in mind that smokers will not want to be relegated to obscure parts of campus,” Soriano wrote in an email.
The Student Assembly approved the committee’s proposal, and the SA is currently determining the location of the designated areas, as well as their size and how they would be marked. Soriano said the proposal would suggest at least two-dozen areas and that freshmen be educated about campus smoking policy during orientation.
According to Soriano, if the state passed the ban, what would really matter is to what extent the University would comply with it.
“I doubt that the University will enthusiastically enforce a smoking ban, because it is a waste of resources,” Soriano said. “Instead, I believe the University will unofficially endorse the Smoking Review Committee’s plan.”
University President Harvey Stenger is working with a separate group of faculty and students, who are looking into ways that Binghamton can create a generally healthier campus environment.
“Included within their scope is an examination of voluntary programs to encourage and support smoking cessation as well as programs aimed at nutrition, fitness and alcohol and other drug abuse,” Stenger wrote in an email. “The group is also monitoring SUNY system and legislative action with regard to the tobacco-free initiative so we are prepared to respond to future developments as necessary.”
Eight SUNY schools already have their own smoking bans, but according to Lupardo, enforcement would be difficult if one were imposed at BU.
“There are no penalty provisions outlined in the bill,” she wrote in an email.
Carl Wiezalis said that educating students about the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke is critical to creating tobacco-free campuses.
“Tobacco use is a strong addiction, so campuses should invest in a variety of educational, behavior modification and pharmacologic programs to assist students, faculty and staff break the habit,” he wrote.
He also wrote that whether or not the ban could be fully enforced should not prevent the ban from being passed.
“Suicide is illegal in our society, but difficult to enforce after the fact,” Wiezalis wrote. “The intention of the related laws is to educate our people of the intended community standard related to life, not to punish dead people. Rules and laws may not totally stop undesirable behavior in our society, but they usually state the wisdom and preferences of the majority.”
Libertarian Zachary Greenberg, on the other hand, said that the whole matter essentially comes down to individual rights.
“It is really something that affects everyone,” Greenberg said. “Students don’t vacate their rights when they come to campus.”