Opinion: University smoking ban overrides minority

The University of Otago's total smoking ban is draconian and discriminatory and should be revisited, writes Joss Miller.

The total campus smoking ban recently imposed by the University of Otago Council has received surprisingly little comment. During the four years before this ban smoking had been permitted on campus 6m from any building.

It is a substantial step to go from where smoking was permitted, albeit with some restrictions, to a total ban without even the provision of specified smoking areas.

This ban, we are told, brings the University of Otago in line with other campuses around New Zealand and is no doubt consistent with current political and social ideology aimed at making New Zealand smoke-free by 2025.

The work and determined focus of Aspire 2025 (a research partnership aimed at helping to achieve a smoke-free New Zealand) and the Otago smoke-free campus working group would not have gone unnoticed by the University Council.

While we are all aware of health risks associated with smoking, there are other issues that need to be considered in making decisions of this nature.

Questions need to be asked about the legitimacy of this total campus smoking ban and the manner in which it has been implemented.

Proponents for the ban quoted a recent survey of staff and students stating about 80% of both groups supported a smoke-free campus.

However, the minority of about 20% who opposed this no doubt includes smokers and non-smokers.

This is not a situation where the majority opinion should determine the outcome but rather what is fair and reasonable in considering the interests and views of everyone.

What are the functions of the University of Otago? The ''characteristic'' functions of a university are found in section 162 (4) of the Education Act 1989.

In essence they are: a primary concern with advanced learning; interdependence of research and teaching; meeting international standards of research and teaching; a repository of knowledge and expertise; a role as a critic and conscience of society; diversity of teaching and research.

The University Council has a number of duties, an important one being to ensure ''the university does not unfairly discriminate against any person''.

The university's decision to impose a total smoking ban on campus is clearly discriminatory and also arguably not in keeping with one of its stated functions as a ''critic and conscience of society''.

There did not appear to be anything wrong with the previous policy, which created a balance where people could smoke without affecting those who wished to avoid it.

This is a draconian decision whatever the merits advanced based on research and health statistics relating to smoking.

I suggest a university should be the ultimate bastion of freedom, and not succumb to pressure groups or political agendas. The University of Otago needs to protect individual liberty and choice on campus, not fetter it. Educate by all means but do not constrain unreasonably.

Once established, this type of precedent can become all-pervasive. What does the University of Otago ban next? Certain types of food?

Do we as a society want to be ruled by blandness and authoritarianism? Surely, in life it is the tapestries of differences that need to be cherished.

History tells us that hard-earned freedoms can vanish overnight, having gone up in the proverbial ''puff of smoke''. One can hope for the improbable - that the University of Otago Council will revisit this decision.

Joss Miller is a Dunedin lawyer.

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