Tobacco: Banned in Boston

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 15 2008 7:53 AM

Tobacco: Banned in Boston

The health police have crossed another line. Four months ago, they banned new fast-food restaurants in a 32-square-mile area of Los Angeles. In that case, they crossed the line from restricting food for kids to restricting it for adults . They also extended the practice of health zoning from liquor to food .

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Now they've breach another line between paternalism for children and paternalism for adults. The Boston Public Health Commission has just banned the sale of all tobacco products at colleges. Not high schools. Colleges.

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Anti-smoking activists are ecstatic. "Boston has taken another step that puts it in the forefront in the United States in protecting people against secondhand smoke," says the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. But the Boston regulations don't just restrict smoking. They forbid the sale of "any substance containing tobacco leaf, including but not limited to cigarettes, cigars, pipe, tobacco, snuff, chewing tobacco and dipping tobacco." Last I heard, there's no secondhand smoke from chewing tobacco. And the tobacco industry is constantly developing new products that confound the equation of tobacco with smoking. That's not because tobacco companies care deeply about public health. It's because secondhand smoke has become a political problem for them—and because, while addicting customers is good business, killing them isn't.

In a press release , the executive director of the Boston commission says the new regulations "will help reduce young people's exposure to tobacco products." Young people? That phrase used to mean minors. Now, apparently, it includes the targets of the new rule: students at "any public or private college, normal school, professional school, scientific or technical institution, university or other institution furnishing a program of higher education."

On what grounds do college students—not to mention students at professional schools—deserve the kind of paternalism previously reserved for minors? The commission offers two reasons. First, "educational institutions in the City of Boston also sell tobacco products to the younger population, which is particularly at risk for becoming smokers." Second, " the sale of tobacco products is also incompatible with the mission of educational institutions which educate the younger population about social, environmental and health risks and harms."

In other words, college students (henceforth known as "the younger population") are so vulnerable to smoking and to deception about the harms of smoking that their access to any tobacco products on campus must be legally forbidden.

It's true that laws across the United States set the legal drinking age at 21. But those laws are based on the argument that alcohol makes people aged 18 to 20 drive dangerously . Where's the evidence that chewing tobacco makes these people drive dangerously?

To repeat: I detest smoking. But if there's no secondhand smoke and no secondhand driving effects, what are the grounds for telling a 20-year-old college student—let alone a 25-year-old professional-school student—that tobacco is off-limits? And if that kind of paternalism can be extended so easily from minors to 25-year-olds, who's next?

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