Stanford Gets an F

Oct. 3, 2013, 10:10 p.m.

What poisonous product can you buy at Stanford Marketplace and the Valero on campus? A substance responsible for one in five deaths in the world? A product that will kill over half its users?


It’s 2013, and Stanford is the only university in Santa Clara County that continues to allow the sale of tobacco on campus. For this practice, the Santa Clara Public Health Department gave Stanford an F in their report card on tobacco policy.

We were the only university to receive a failing grade.

At such a prominent institution, in a state that has led the nation in tobacco control policy, are we satisfied with failing our students and community? Is it worth the profits to Valero to continue the sale of a deadly product on campus? Is it in our best interests to support an industry that has thrived on the addiction of its customers and preyed on their ignorance? Absolutely not.

The hazards of cigarettes may be viewed as “old news, but tobacco-related diseases continue to be the leading cause of preventable death in America and the world. About 45 million Americans regularly smoke, and nearly half of these people will die from their habit.

Nor are we immune to the pitfalls of tobacco use here at Stanford. In 2012 the Office of Alcohol Policy surveyed Stanford students and found that the annual smoking prevalence is 20 percent. This percentage is half that of the national average, and the rate of students who have smoked recently is even lower. This bodes well for Stanford students, but can’t we lower it by limiting our own access to cigarettes?

Stanford is a modern campus at the forefront of innovation, yet we are being left behind with our failing grade. As of July 8, more than 1,100 American universities have enacted smoke-free campus policies: No smoking cigarettes indoors or anywhere outdoors. 800 of these universities have passed tobacco-free policies, banning the presence of any tobacco products. Can Stanford take the first step and ban their sale?

Berkeley will go tobacco-free on Jan. 1, 2014. UCLA was the first in the University of California system, going tobacco-free on April 22 of this year. University of Oregon went tobacco free Sept. 2012 with sponsorship from Nike. Can Stanford keep up?

Think smoking is an issue just for smokers? The air exhaled by a smoker and the side stream smoke released from a cigarette exposes those around him to 69 chemicals known to cause cancer. If a neighboring power plant were emitting toxins like these, would we be sitting by so passively? Even with the bans on smoking within 20 feet of buildings, secondhand smoke remains toxic to nonsmokers. The National Cancer Institute has found that there is no safe level of exposure. Personal freedoms extend as far as they don’t harm others; it does not seem that smoking qualifies.

Consider the intersection of social justice and tobacco. We loathe industries that commit human rights abuses, but what of industries that invite us to abuse ourselves? Yes, we can choose not to smoke. We have agency. But when so much misinformation on tobacco prevails, when even our choices are the products of covert advertising constructions like smoking in the movies and faux anti-tobacco pitches in schools by industry experts, why should we trust this industry with our money? With our health?

Consider the story of the face of Winston cigarettes, a male model named David Goerlitz. After a photoshoot, he asked Winston executives if he could keep some of the cigarettes used in the shoot. They told him to take them all. Perplexed, he asked them if they smoked. One answered: “Are you kidding? We reserve that right for the poor, the young, the black and the stupid.”

“The young” are the “replacement smokers,” the “learners,” the under-20 demographic of first-time smokers who are referred to so often in industry documents. That’s us. We replace the older smokers who are dying. Does that also make us “the stupid”? We can’t allow an industry that targets us with contempt and misinformation to continue to manipulate us. We can do better.

Some may argue against me, saying that smoking is a personal freedom, a mode of expression. The tobacco industry has marketed smoking as a form of free speech since the late 1980s. We should be able to think outside their rhetoric, to define ourselves rather than allowing their marketing to twist our thinking.

In the face of overwhelming evidence of the hazards of smoking and the misconduct of the industry, why do we continue to defend tobacco? Why would we continue to allow its sale on our campus? For convenience? Easy purchase is not a right, and it carries sinister implications: By allowing the sale of cigarettes on campus, Stanford tacitly endorses the tobacco industry.

Consider your own experience. How many smokers do you know who are proud of that aspect of their identity? Especially older smokers. Smoking has become a part of their identity they can’t escape even though they regret ever starting. Do we want that for ourselves? Do we want this part of our free expression to become a ball and chain?

As for banning the sale of cigarettes, I turn to Stanford professor Robert Proctor: “Smokers should have the right to smoke, but the product is too dangerous to sell.” How many other products have such a dismal history as cigarettes? How many diseases have such a high mortality rate?

From 1965 to 2009, smoking declined by 50 percent, with a small peak around the turn of the millennium. We can keep going. We can kick the deadliest human invention in history off our campus. The Stanford School of Medicine has already successfully done so. Let’s follow their lead. Let’s make smoke-free environments to help smokers quit. Let’s remove the cues to use. Make Stanford a better place. Make it a place that doesn’t sell cigarettes.


– Contact Blake Montgomery ‘14 at [email protected].

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