In the pilot episode of Mad Men, the protagonist Don Draper has a problem. He’s tasked with writing a new ad campaign for Lucky Strike, a cigarette brand that’s just been busted by the Federal Trade Commission for obscuring health concerns about smoking. Draper comes up with the slogan “It’s Toasted,” side-stepping the health claims with feel good farm imagery.
In 2015, the dangers of smoking are no longer ambiguous. According to the Center for Disease Control, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S. That translates to roughly 1,300 deaths per day. While a 2011 survey in the News suggests Yalies smoke at far lower rates than the national average, the University ought to implement a smoking ban on campus.
Smoking’s economic damage is clear. In 2012, despite the tobacco industry’s $35.1 billion in profits — roughly the combined profits of McDonalds, Microsoft and Coca-Cola — the costs of tobacco-related death and disease exceed an estimated $289 billion dollars.
Clarity has come with some substantial progress. Smoking rates for American adults have dropped from 42 percent in 1965 to 19 percent in 2011. But ultimately, public knowledge of smoking’s danger is not enough to keep millions of young Americans from buying their first pack. The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health among college-age Americans found that in the past month, 31.8 percent of Americans 18-25 had used cigarettes. According to the CDC, more than 3,000 American teenagers try their first cigarette every day, and more than 2,000 young adults make the hop from habit to addiction.
Those numbers will come as no surprise to my fellow Yalies, but millions of Americans our age smoke anyway. Even on our campus, cigarettes have enormous social cache. They’re cool. They suggest confident vagaries at a time when our lives are in flux. A universal accessory, cigarettes look natural in the hands of hipsters, hackers, frat stars and any other identity we might try in the seven years between prom night and our third year out of college. Smoke suppresses your appetite and calms you down. It’s a social lubricant: an excuse to chat, flirt and “step outside.”
Cigarettes are still cool because they’re visible. Lucky Strike’s worldwide sales have increased by more than 10 billion packs a year since Mad Men first aired in 2007. Yale cannot stop us from watching Mad Men, but it can deprive smoking of its vogue status by making it inconvenient. A campus ban would reinforce the uncontroversial notion that cigarettes are bad for our community, creating social space for peers to mock smoking as an unhealthy affectation.
The benefits of a smoking ban would extend far beyond our campus. American higher education looks to the Ivy League to set the example, and as of now, no Ivy League college has a campus-wide smoking ban. (Harvard has a ban on its Medical, Dental and Public Health schools.) If Yale were to mandate a campus-wide smoking ban, it would create a precedent and political space for other universities to do the same. Our school is one of a handful of universities that has the necessary profile and social capital to launch the fight against tobacco.
I am not the first person to recommend this policy change. Last year, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy called on schools in Connecticut to ban smoking. In 2011, Yale administrators entertained the idea of a campus-wide ban on smoking by creating a Tobacco-Free Yale Workgroup to consider policies that could reduce smoking on campus. Little has happened.
It’s too bad. Yale could lead the charge in preventive public health, the way it has with sexual violence and, though reluctantly, with mental health. It’s needless torpor. A galvanized multi-college smoking ban would save the American taxpayer millions of dollars and prevent thousands of premature deaths.
Yes, it seems borderline puritanical to begrudge a stressed out student the occasional midnight smoke. But when you’re 19 years old, it isn’t just a smoke. The stakes are higher than that. Our generation’s college smokers stand at the brink of a public health precipice. Yale is in a position to make sure they don’t fall off.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .