Designated zones are a smokescreen masking the real issue

Designated smoking zones will be no more successful than smoke-free zones were

Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) has passed a motion removing its mandate to seek smoking-free zones. TCDSU President Kevin Keane proposed the motion to allow a discussion on smoke-free zones in college.

Before this intervention, smokers could only smoke in areas that were not designated as smoking-free. They will now only be permitted to smoke in those areas that are designated as smoking zones. This reversal in language distracts from the real crisis of Trinity’s restrictions on smoking. They don’t work. Smoking is common throughout the campus. Some areas that are technically smoking-free, like the Arts Building entrance, function primarily as smoking areas. The myriad surveys, panels, committees and legislation conducted by College and the SU have had no effect.

The process behind Trinity’s smoking legislation began in 2011. The Safety Committee started slow with its prohibition of smoking inside or within four metres of building entrances. Nothing followed for two years. April 2013 saw College distribute an online survey to assess support for a potential ban of smoking on campus. About a third of students and staff responded. Together, they expressed slight support for a smoking ban.

The Safety Committee formed a sub-committee on smoking. That sub-committee then divided into four sub-groups, which then held five ‘town hall’ meetings to discuss different elements of this initiative, now dubbed Tobacco Free Trinity (TFT).

Trinity held these meetings from October 2013 to January 2014. Their minutes reveal discussion of entirely predictable problems. Concerns about alternate locations for smoking dominate the minutes. Security confirmed that they could not actually enforce a ban. Some attendees felt that the phrase “denormalise smoking” offended smokers and should be struck from any legislation.

In February 2014, the SU held a referendum on the smoking ban. Much to the surprise of the TFT subcommittee, a 53% majority emerged against it. Its report on the referendum emphasises that “a swing of [exactly] 109 votes would have resulted in a yes vote”. Two months later and no surer of their position, Trinity again sent out an online survey. The ‘follow-up’, apparently asking ‘similar questions to the original’, accrued responses from only 9% of students and staff. Despite waning enthusiasm for TFT, the committee pressed on with a total ban on smoking that met its end from TCDSU and the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU).

Further consultation with SU and GSU over the 2014/2015 academic year finally produced a long-vaunted compromise. In July 2016, Trinity introduced three smoke-free zones on campus: Fellows’ Square, the Health Centre and the Sport Centre. As TCDSU’s motion revealed, this is not the end of the tale. Another reversal in policy will likely lead to another period of investigation and consultation. A definitive statement on smoking from Trinity is now six years in the making and still nowhere near an arrival.

You can smoke anywhere around campus, there are no real disincentives for smoking anywhere else. The current frame of policy seems so obsessed with restriction by location that it has lost sense of anything else.

An effective anti-smoking policy understands the reasons for smoking. With tobacco products now exorbitantly priced and defaced with images of smoking-related ailments, lack of awareness cannot stand as a cause. Smoking is understood as a horrifically expensive and harmful activity, even among smokers. Whatever incentives held by smoking must be strong.

A host of explanations abound for the stubborn prevalence of smoking. Of these, its role as a social activity and a status symbol seems essential to Trinity’s policymaking. Any focus on moving or restricting the locations of smoking supposes that smoking occurs entirely as a conversation facilitator. While social smoking may fall under this remit, such a policy still ignores the deeper causes of smoking.

Many smokers report that they smoke as a stress relief. This is not a surprise. A 2015 British Heart Foundation study reported that smokers are 70% more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than non-smokers. The same study reported that more than a third of smokers struggle to quit because of the anti-anxiety effect of smoking. This trend follows a consistent pattern behind all drug use. Mental health issues often precede and are exacerbated by substance abuse.

None of the surveys and consultations behind TFT include any information on the relationship between mental health and smoking. The level of influence played by mental health issues in smoking by Trinity students is therefore unknown.

If even the leaders of our anti-smoking initiative normalise smoking, we cannot expect the actual enforcement of any sort of smoking ban. Whether Trinity stipulates some areas as smoking-free or no-smoking is irrelevant without an interest in the causes of smoking. TFT will remain an abstract and much-derided scheme on campus.

Correction 17.55 December 7 2017: This article previously stated that Kevin Keane hopes to introduce designated smoking areas. This was incorrect. Keane proposed a motion to allow a discussion on the stance TCDSU should take.

Harry Downes

Harry Downes in the current News Analysis Editor of Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister History student/