Subtle Measures Will Best Reduce Smoking Rates


For one thing, a flat-out ban is virtually impossible to enforce, something a New York judge noted in his ruling, which struck down the city’s ambitious decade-long attempt to curb consumption of sugary drinks.

For another thing, a ban doesn’t make economic sense. Prohibition, a nationwide alcohol ban that was in place in the 1920s, was struck down in 1933 because, in the words of historian Robert Blakely, “the government just wanted in again.”

Bans have never bent behaviors on any significant scale, and they won’t work again next January, when Mark Yudof’s UC-wide smoking ban takes effect.

Enforcement at public universities, which are largely outdoors and span multiple buildings, is either a nightmarish challenge for police or a non-priority.

The final word isn’t in yet, but preliminary data suggest that the national movement to ban smoking at colleges (774 have done it already) has been ineffective. Although the number of college campuses that have banned smoking is up a full 4 percent from last year, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who smoke has increased by half a percent, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, the data indicate that telling rebellious youngsters that they’re banned from smoking is actually the best way to keep them going. And nutritionists are realizing this: A 2012 Penn State University study found that when it comes to promoting healthy diet behaviors, subtle measures are much more effective than drastic, punitive ones.

Fewer than 9 percent of UCSD students smoke, and for the most part, they are courteous about it. Smoking is no longer an act of rebellion, as it was in the ’60s, according to a 2010 study published by Yale researchers in the American Journal of Public Health. Most of today’s students smoke to stay focused while they study, in addition to other factors like stress and addiction, the researchers found. It’s likely, the researchers noted, that a steep tax would be enough for these students to give up the cigarettes for a cup of coffee instead.

Economic solutions like these are not only more sustainable — they’re more mature. They’re also easier to enforce and implement than an outright ban on cigarettes. Charging the General Store a sharp administrative fee for every pack of cigarettes it sells would strongly discourage cash-strapped students from indulging in an extra pack of cigarettes.

And who knows — maybe the revenue from a cigarette fee could even buy us another year of student bus stickers. But that’s being overly optimistic, much like Yudof’s smoking ban itself.