As one of the students involved in the Tobacco Free Yale Workgroup, I am deeply concerned by the News’ premature backlash against a nonexistent proposal. In its editorial, “News’ view: Kill the smoking ban,” the newspaper posits that “creating a ‘Tobacco Free Yale Workgroup’ before even surveying the student population shows a deep disregard of student opinion.” The group is in the midst of developing such a survey, with the hopes of incorporating student interests in any policy changes. A solid plan to implement a smoking ban does not yet exist, though the group’s slightly misleading name may indicate otherwise.
As revealed by the online responses to the News story “Yale mulls smoke-free campus,” many students, as well as the News, have mistakenly reduced the debate over smoking interventions to a case of individual rights and enforcement. Certainly, these two ideas warrant concern, and the group is taking them into consideration. The rationale behind efforts to combat smoking does not merely stem from a desire to discourage or stigmatize the habit. According to one of the story’s interviewees, “people should have the right to smoke if it’s not hurting anyone else but themselves.” Certainly, if this were the case, smoking would not constitute such an important and controversial public health concern. But according to the National Institute of Health, an estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year among adult nonsmokers in the United States are attributable to secondhand smoke. If smokers have the right to smoke (on or off campus), certainly nonsmokers have the right to clean air. In an effort to preserve this right, many colleges and universities, in both suburban and urban settings, have implemented campus-wide smoking bans or have designated specific areas smoke-free. As the Tobacco Free Yale workgroup has not yet developed a formal proposal, either option could be pursued.
Yet whether or not students unanimously support a campus-wide smoking ban is not relevant — all individuals have the right to good health. We must make bombastic claims against a nonexistent policy, but instead, focus on a deeply unsettling problem: Yale HEALTH does not offer sufficient and affordable treatment options to current smokers.
In an effort to combat the smoking pandemic and its repercussions, many universities throughout the United States have adopted health plans that subsidize smoking cessation treatment. The Harvard University Health Services initiated a SUPPORT-to-QUIT program. It provides most smoking cessation drugs, including Chantix, for a co-pay of $5, as well as a free four-week supply of nicotine patches and telephone, online, or face-to-face counseling. The University of Virginia’s Quit for Life program includes full coverage of nicotine patches and nicotine gum, a personalized quit plan developed with a Quit Coach, assistance selecting tobacco cessation medication, and up to five counseling calls. Depending on the specific plan chosen, Stanford affiliates have access to free over-the-counter (OTC) medications, individualized coaching, and/or multi-session stop smoking programs. And the list goes on.
Yale’s programs pale in comparison. The Yale HEALTH website directs smokers to organizations outside Yale University for information and counseling. Furthermore, Yale HEALTH does not provide coverage for OTC smoking cessation treatments, and requires relatively high co-pays for the Nicotrol Inhaler and Chantix. In fact, the only free Yale-affiliated smoking cessation programs available are through research studies offered at the Center for Nicotine & Tobacco Use Research at Yale (CENTURY).
While many students have expressed fear of action, after a year of petitioning for such changes, I am tired of inaction. Dean Gentry “said his main focus is to include programs that would help and support current smokers who want to quit.” But rhetoric is no longer enough. The question of whether Yale should become “smoke-free” has been debated for more than a year. Through its coverage, the News brought a discussion that has thus far been veiled behind closed doors to the foreground of public discourse. Now, it is time to replace talk with action.
Last year, Colleges Against Cancer obtained several hundred student signatures on a petition supporting the subsidization of smoking cessation treatment under Yale HEALTH. This semester, we must demand that the administration increase the transparency of their discussions and follow through with their verbal commitments. In the long run, the expansion of Yale HEALTH will reduce the costs of treatment for smoking-related health issues and save lives.
Pooja Yerramilli is a junior in Ezra Stiles College and the Advocacy Chair of Yale Colleges Against Cancer.