Point/Counterpoint: Should Tobacco Sales Be Banned on University Property?

“The document is about aligning the commercial decisions of the University with the values it espouses.”

Well, should they? That’s the subject of a WSA General Assembly meeting tonight in Usdan 108, where President Roth ’78 will make a not-so-surprise appearance and is willing “to talk about anything you want.” (Including Hegel.) (And Freud.) The meeting is at 7 p.m., and maybe I’ll see you there, because it just occurred to me I’ve never been to a WSA meeting before in my life.

According to the Argus, the WSA’s Student Affairs Committee recently proposed to ban the sale of tobacco products on all University-owned properties, a category that most notably includes popular cigarette supplier Neon Deli. In fact it was committee chair Nicole Updegrove ’14, not the committee itself, who proposed the resolution (update: The Argus has amended their article to reflect this distinction), and in a brief email interview with Wesleying, Updegrove defends her controversial resolution against opponents.

Have opinions of your own about the resolution? Good. Consider going to the meeting tonight, where the Assembly will be asembling in a most assembly-like fashion. We’ll highlight a counterpoint from a student against the proposal later today. Here’s our interview with Updegrove:

What inspired you to propose banning the sale of tobacco products on University property?

I first started looking into this idea after learning the number of freshmen every year (about 35) who start smoking in their first six weeks at Wesleyan. But I don’t harbor any delusions that this resolution—or the lease change—would prevent anyone who is determined from smoking. And many would argue that it shouldn’t. For the record, the operative clause of the document is:

[The Wesleyan Student Assembly] urges Wesleyan University to amend its lease agreements with renters to include a clause forbidding the sale of tobacco products on any Wesleyan-owned property.

So what are you trying to accomplish with this resolution? 

The document is about aligning the commercial decisions of the University with the values it espouses.  I consider this resolution to be in the same vein as others that have called for need-blind admissions on moral grounds, or divestment from nonrenewable energy, or fair labor policy. Wesleyan has a commitment to use its fiscal, political, and educational capital to advance the public good, and I don’t believe that the University can maintain that stance when some of its financial decisions contradict that value.

We have a right to make our own decisions—that’s another value espoused by the University, and I will and do defend that right—but Wesleyan shouldn’t facilitate such a devastatingly unhealthy choice. This is an opportunity for Wesleyan to stand on principle. Realistically, it will be largely symbolic in its effects, but symbols do have power. This would be a modest improvement in the ethics of Wesleyan’s institutional decision-making, but in my mind it’s a step in the right direction.

As mentioned in the Argus, this is just a resolution. I thought it was an interesting idea, so I brought it to the floor to determine what others think. We discussed it on Sunday at General Assembly, people will talk about it with other people all week to form their opinions, and we’ll discuss and then vote tonight (unless anyone votes to table the vote). Even then, a resolution is a document proclaiming the opinion of the Assembly. It has real power only if the University wants to act on it.

How has the reaction among students been so far?

Mixed. Most people who have read the resolution or who’ve debated it with me outside the Assembly are in favor. Those who just heard about it in the Argus (which doesn’t yet include details), or who don’t believe that the University has the right to dictate the sales of a business that leases property from us, tend to disagree. And that’s a fair argument.

One person brought up the “slippery slope” argument: will we stop selling sodas or candy on-campus? Well, looking around the campus, it’s easy to see that we don’t have an obesity problem. And the negative impacts of candy and soda, unless consumed in an excess that seems fairly impossible on our current meal plan, most likely won’t cause a lifetime of harm to us and the people around us. (If you have evidence to the contrary, please let me know so we can consult with Bon Appetit. And perhaps I’ll write another resolution.) But cigarettes will cause a lifetime of harm, so the University has an obligation not to facilitate that habit.

How has the reaction among administrators been so far?

Positive so far, but they don’t want to push this without the support of the Assembly. And I am definitely open to input from the students, so please, comment or send me an email.

Have you discussed it with Neon Deli or any other tobacco vendors?

I haven’t. I plan to. But based on a pretty disparaging (and upsetting) comment I heard while getting a sandwich this summer, the owners don’t value smoking either.

I’ve heard criticism that this will negatively affect the profitability of Neon, but the profit margins of cigarettes are pretty low compared to other convenience store products. Not to mention that the priority here should be the health of students. And I’m sure a better stock of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or an increased diversity of produce will take up the empty real estate behind the counter.

How is this policy similar (or dissimilar) from the bottled water ban on campus? 

It’s very similar. You can still smoke, just buy the cigarettes elsewhere; you can still drink bottled water, just buy it off-campus. Bon Appetit was probably slightly adversely affected, but the environment wins out. And Neon Deli will probably find other sources of profitable product mark-up to make up for not selling cigarettes. Both are about the University’s taking a stance on an issue that affects the world around us.

Now is the time for a gratuitous mention of the fact that the bottled water ban had student support, and the passage of this resolution is dependent upon student approval, at the very least among the Assembly. For the record, our meetings on Sunday are always open and we would love to hear your input.

How do you think student smokers might react? Will they be able to purchase tobacco within walking distance of campus?

Some of the student smokers I’ve talked to support it. There are other stores that sell cigarettes literally three blocks away. It will be less convenient for people in senior houses who smoke, but hey, our inability to buy water bottles is pretty inconvenient sometimes. The University took a stance on bottled water, and for that I think most of us are pretty pleased.

Are there any other on-campus locations besides Neon that sell tobacco products? 

Not that I’m aware of (since WeShop no longer sells them), but if there are, they’ll be affected as well.

Are you a smoker?

I have never smoked. Nor have I ever consumed alcohol, gone to bed after 10 p.m., worn egregious clothing, or proposed a potentially unpopular resolution…

The truth is, like many people, although I wouldn’t call myself a smoker, I have smoked in the past and I definitely understand the appeal. The goal of this resolution isn’t to prevent students from smoking if that is their choice—although I will note that I have heard many voices in favor of a smoke-free campus. That’s farther than I personally am willing to go without campus-wide discussion and a vote from the entire school.

  • yetanotherperson

    This ban idea troubles me because it shows a rather myopic, Wesleyan-centered view of the situation on the part of the WSA. This proposal rests on the assumption that Neon is patronized primarily by Wesleyan students and people associated with Wesleyan, which isn’t true at all. There are plenty of people not affiliated with the university who frequent Neon (and probably buy a lot of cigarettes there). Neon might be a tenant of Wesleyan, but it’s still a Middletown business. To a certain extent, I think the university should be able to regulate smoking on campus, but banning cigarette sales at Neon is rather overstepping its bounds. I also suspect Neon would lose a not inconsiderable amount of money as the result of a cigarette ban. This resolution strikes me as an empty gesture that would do little to reduce smoking on campus while imposing a potentially harmful sanction against a small business.

    • Nicole Updegrove

      Should Wesleyan profit from the sale of cigarettes to Middletown residents? I’m curious as to how people feel about that. And symbolic gestures have often been referred to as “empty” – do they matter? Do symbols accomplish change, or meaning?

      • https://twitter.com/weird_vibes weird_vibes

        Why do we care if people in Middletown are smoking?? Are we trying to be the morality and health police for them too now? The only thing this will be a symbol of is Wesleyan being patronizing and self-righteous. Which may accomplish change in that it will hurt our relationship with Middletown…
        Is that what you’re going for?

        • Nicole Updegrove

          I like to think that a lot of us care about the health of people in the town around us, the same way we care about rampant problems of hunger and poverty in this town as well. And I’m not sure that Wesleyan employing its right as owner of the property to dictate what kinds of commerce can occur there can or should be called “patronizing” or “self-righteous.” If you have justification for that, I’d love to hear it.

          • https://twitter.com/weird_vibes weird_vibes

            *facepalm* Sure, I guess I do ‘care’ on that level…but shouldn’t we trust the Middletown residents to make their own choices? Especially since they don’t go to Wesleyan, and so shouldn’t have to abide by some students’ (apparently) Draconian views on cigarette regulation…

          • think about it

            It has nothing to do with trust in decision making. It’s about what industries the university should be profiting from. For example if we divested from oil and gas and then put a gas station on campus that we profited from, it wouldn’t be saying no you can’t buy gas and we don’t trust you to be able to make the correct decision about your fossil fuel use, it would simply be saying that Wesleyan does not believe that we should profit from the industry. No one has to abide by any “draconian” views or rules. The same way that I’m sorry if the university interrupted people’s ability to buy alcohol when we closed Club Liquors in the same building that Neon is in, no one is forced to change consumption patterns, if they don’t want to change them. The idea is that the university should not profit from them given their (proven) side effects (and those side effects do extend to others not just the user so don’t use the fatty foods argument on me).

  • Marmot

    OH NO WE’RE GOING TO HAVE TO WALK TO MARCO’S

    • thismustbetheplace

      BUT THE NAT SHERMANS!!!

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  • alum

    I’m an alum who bought plenty of packs from Neon. I’m all for liberty, but I actually think that cigarette usage shouldn’t be endorsed by a forward-thinking university. I shoulda learned how to be productive and healthy. 8 years later, I finally quit.

  • aperson
    • Eh

      “That’s not to say, however, that it is safe to smoke until you are 40
      and then stop,” Jha adds. “Former smokers still have a greater risk of
      dying sooner than people who never smoked. But the risk is small
      compared to the huge risk for those who continue to smoke.”

      Also relevant, but missing from that article, is the sheer difficulty in quitting tobacco.