Trinity has more important things to do than attacking smokers

Tobacco Free Trinity is premised on fudged numbers and exclusion

The strangest thing I have seen in a long time: Provost Patrick Prendergast and three others breaking apart a giant cigarette-piñata in Front Square with hurleys, to inaugurate Trinity’s tobacco-free campus policy. Go and have a look at the video put up by The Irish Times. The piñata was full of cigarette-butts.

It turns out that in March last year, Tobacco Free Trinity provided a similar piñata to the College Health Service, who offered a Trinity Ball ticket to whichever student could punch it open. Tobacco Free Trinity are the same people who, on their website, write that “a tobacco free campus is one that supports people who don’t smoke by prohibiting smoking indoors and outdoors on college campuses”.

First, the piñata. I have looked around a bit online and cannot find a cigarette-shaped piñata for sale anywhere. Tobacco Free Trinity must have a supplier who does special requests. But a bog standard unicorn piñata from Amazon costs about €20. Now, it could be that Tobacco Free Trinity managed to leverage some special connection with a piñata-maker that meant that they could get both cigarette-piñatas for free. But if not, here is my question to you: is not every single cent that Tobacco Free Trinity have spent on cigarette piñatas a cent wasted?

Someone somewhere decided that the piñata was a good enough investment that they ordered more than one of them. It might be that they regard €40 as a trivial amount, but if so, that would speak for itself.

Maybe for the first anniversary of the initiative Tobacco-Free Trinity could burn an effigy of a smoker. They could pass it off as a representation of what every smoker is doing to themselves whenever they have a cigarette. An effigy would raise more awareness than a piñata, if that is the aim.

And it would be a truer representation of Tobacco Free Trinity’s attitude towards smokers. The attitude of their public campaign has been one of consistent hatred and intolerance. Read the line from their website again and ask yourself, what kind of an abuse of language is that? The best way to “support” non-smokers, they say, is to squirrel smokers out of existence.

The only reason that there are any designated smoking zones at all remaining is that staff and students demanded them. But don’t be surprised if in 10 years they’re phased out: Tobacco Free Trinity’s ambition is expressed clearly enough in the name.

They have gone to great lengths to disguise the fact that the initiative has effectively been rammed through the College bureaucracy. It has been in the works since 2013, but for five years was repeatedly rejected by staff, the Students’ Union, and the Graduate Students’ Union. Despite this, the initiative was kept going and, at the beginning of this year, it was passed in its current form by TCDSU in a referendum with an abysmally low turnout, and then it was ratified by Board.

Here is the statistic that Tobacco Free Trinity claim vindicates the approach. According to a report to the College Board by Dr David McGrath, smoking had decreased by 83% in the three zones that were made tobacco free on a trial basis in 2016.

The zones were the nursery, the area around the Sports Centre, and Fellows’ Square, which includes the areas outside of the Arts Block and Berkeley library. Now, almost no one has ever smoked by the nursery or the Sports Centre. The bulk of that 83% figure comes from an alleged massive reduction in the number of smokers outside the Arts Block. Tobacco Free Trinity claim that they have caused a four-fifths reduction in the number of smokers outside the Arts Block in the last two-and-a-half years.

Has a more brazen, obviously fraudulent report ever been presented to the College Board? The only way that anyone could believe it is if they hadn’t been to the Arts Block since 2016. Surely everybody knew the numbers were a complete fudge? Did Tobacco Free Trinity carry out their survey of Arts Block smokers at 1am?

There, of course, was never going to be a four-fifths reduction, because College security don’t want to spend their whole day shouting at students for smoking, and students aren’t going to listen to them anyway. And that’s why this policy will fail too. All it will do is give the two grumpiest security guards another excuse to come after any student who gives them cheek.

That said, I’ve no doubt that the impact report, whenever it happens, will declare Tobacco Free Trinity a roaring success. The clue as to why Tobacco Free Trinity can play with facts and hit piñatas with total impunity is on their website: “Over 1,000 third level campuses in America are tobacco free”, they say. Someone from the College Health Service has convinced the College leadership that becoming tobacco free will make the university more attractive to international students.

We know well by now that as, as far as the College leadership is concerned, all sins may be forgiven if they are committed in the service of bringing more international students – and, most importantly, their money – into Trinity. We will do anything to be more like an American university.

But American universities often intrude into students’ lives in ways far beyond what even a secondary school in Ireland would do. Many of them have curfews, kangaroo courts that expel students over spats, canteens instead of cooking facilities, and severe penalties for having sex with someone in your dorm.  

What has gotten lost in all of this is a clear sense of what Trinity’s job is and what it isn’t. Dr. David McGrath told the Irish Times that the aim of Tobacco Free Trinity was “to improve the health of students and staff of the College”. The College Health Service’s aim shouldn’t be to save people from themselves, to impose a worldview on us all according to which a person’s health is a measure of their worth, and those who don’t look after themselves are lesser and deserve less.

The fact is that, nowadays in particular, everyone who smokes is aware of the effects it will have on their health, and they do it anyway. And that’s their business. People drink and eat rashers and do all kinds of other things that are bad for them too.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to find the correct balance between looking after themselves and enjoying themselves, and it’s everyone’s right to choose the way of balancing those things that works for them. It’s a shame that Trinity is no longer a place that understands that.

Rory O'Sullivan

Rory O'Sullivan is a former Contributing Editor and Comment Editor of Trinity News, and an Ancient Greek graduate.