With much fanfare, Boise State University last week implemented a campus-wide no-smoking policy. I'm not going to deny the ability of the government to regulate or even ban smoking on campus. The trouble is, the policy extends beyond the campus and its buildings and straight into privately-owned automobiles.
"Smoking on all Boise State property, including in cars parked on the property, is prohibited," school officials explain in a frequently-asked-questions paper attached to the policy. And violators? "Boise State University reserves the right to initiate disciplinary procedures against any individual found to be in continuous violation of this policy," students are warned. I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds like something you wouldn't want your parents to know about.
Boise State takes a huge leap, putting the government in control of the interior of private vehicles, all in the interest of promoting student health and academic performance. But Ferd Schlapper, BSU campus wellness director, said Tuesday the policy had to include the cars.
"These are mobile smoking units on the campus," Schlapper said, adding that a person's smoke "really does soak and permeate into the clothing and into the air." (I have to admit a fondness for the imagery of "mobile smoking units." I drive a "mobile trash heap.")
Schlapper contends that students who don't smoke academically out-perform students who do. It is therefore in the interest of the students to ban this activity, even in their vehicles, he said.
"If we did allow (smoking in cars), to me that would be really inconsistent" with the healthy-campus message the school is trying to convey, said Schlapper.
But "inconsistency," thy name is BSU. The university's policymakers are not incensed about other activities on campus that do not equate to a healthy lifestyle. One might argue for a ban on vending machines, particularly those stocked with sweetened sodas and gooey candy bars, both of which students reportedly consume to excess. Snickers really satisfies, but excessive Snickers is indistinguishable from death wrapped in nougat. I'm told that death has a depressing impact on a student's academic performance.
BSU communications director Frank Zang said, "I don't think it's a fair comparison to equate the products of a vending machine with the consumption of tobacco products when measuring the potential health hazards. This is about wellness as much as academic performance."
"Wellness" has become the handmaiden of statism. If a legislature, city council, county commission or school can enact a policy in the interest of wellness, where does it stop? I've not seen this firsthand, but I'm told that some students at Boise State stay up past their bedtimes and consume mass quantities of carbohydrate-soaked ramen noodles. Where is the outrage? Where are the policies to make sure that students are tucked into bed by 9 p.m.? Can we at least get a public service announcement highlighting the anguish felt by a student warming a bowl of noodles for the fifth night in a row? "On the inside, I'm dying," a pasty, emaciated actor could beseech viewers. "What about vegetables? Where's my right to wellness?"
I have never liked government-imposed smoking bans because they restrict private property rights and are an affront to individual liberty and free markets. Still, it used to be that smoking bans were enacted to protect the health of those around the smokers, those who would be subjected unwillingly to carcinogenic secondhand smoke. What you did in the confines of your own home or vehicle was up to you, and the anti-smoking crowd was generally all right with that. Boise State has changed the game.
Boise State is a great institution. My wife is a student there. We don't smoke, and I hate the smell of cigarette smoke. But I happen to love freedom, and I know that a person sitting in his or her car smoking a cigarette in no way injures me. It's a stupid, disgusting habit, but it's not my habit and it's not my health. Once government enacts altruistic wellness policies and assumes responsibility for the healthy or unhealthy behaviors of the rest of us, we've lost any claim we've ever had to that noble concept of freedom. And Boise State's policy is a great example of what government looks like when freedom comes second to all other objectives.
Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].