Opinion Columns & Blogs

Smoking wars at UC Merced

When the vast majority of people see a pack of cigarettes today, the first thoughts that come to mind are most likely addiction, cancer, emphysema, coughing, heart attack, pregnancy defects and so on.

However, as dangerously as nonsmoking ads facilitated by organizations such as "Truth," portray smoking, cigarettes are still a top commodity, at least in the world market.

Here at UC Merced, despite countless statistics, surgeon general's warnings and an overall lack of social acceptance, people still smoke.

Recently, a controversy has developed among smokers on campus, other students and members of UC Merced. The source of this disturbance lies in a contradiction of the enforced campus rules and state law.

The original housing agreement, which all residents have signed, stated that smoking rules on campus were synonymous with those across California state jurisdiction. That is: no smoking within 20 feet of a building or doorway.

However, the contract has since been amended to exclude smoking except in designated areas, such as the parking lot and the newly created smoker's lounge (located just on the outskirts of housing).

This amendment required no signatures to take effect, as there was a clause in the original housing contract that implied one's acceptance of any future amendments. Smoking rules on campus conflict with state-mandated law, even though the University of California is a state-run institution.

"There's a 20-foot distance from any building (state law), but the UC campus is like a municipal county (which are able to enforce their own laws over the state's), in itself ... able to make rules as they see fit," said officer Nick Navarrette, a campus policeman.

Unfortunately, as it stands, many agree that smokers' civil liberties and rights are of little, if any, concern to the vast majority.

"The school treats us like uncivilized beasts, as outcasts of the school. I think it's unfair that certain RAs (resident assistants) are actually civil about enforcing the rules, while others treat us like demon-children spreading the cancer plague, enforcing the rules with a total misuse of power and lack of knowledge. Until they've walked in our shoes, they don't know what it's like. They over-enforce unjust policies," said freshman Chris Ganser.

Ganser said the smoker minority on campus is being oppressed by power-thirsty RAs. He sees this as an encroachment on his civil liberties. He is not alone.

"I am a Republican, and being a Republican means that I coincide with the 20-feet law set forth by the Supreme Court," said junior Bryant Ziemba. "I am doing nothing wrong, I am complying with state law. Personally, I define myself as a 'smoker,' therefore, smoking is my freedom of self-expression, protected by the First Amendment."

I contacted RAs, but they declined to comment.

Not all smokers are quite so concerned about the policies.

Freshman Mike Urner referred to an incident in which an RA confronted him for smoking, then proceeded to indicate that the freshly watered grass was a potential flammable hazard.

"It is a private property (housing), and UC has jurisdiction, but the fact that we're smoking on wet grass, 20 feet from a building, the RAs shouldn't be so anal about it," said Urner.

Beyond the mere issue of state law vs. housing's rules and regulations lies a greater problem: A feeling among many smokers that RAs have been treating them unfairly.

With so much freshman controversy on campus, whether it's fiddling with door locks, alcohol abuse or drug-related issues, smoking on housing property finds itself in a large drawer of problems.

With so many enthusiastic people (both staff and students), one may wonder just where this controversy will end.

I've gotten reports of groups forming to ban smoking on campus entirely.

Beyond that, RAs citing smokers for smoking on their grounds have begun telling them of an upsurge in pressure to fine smokers.

But to what end could these citations truly affect those smokers living on campus?

An increased enforcement of policies could lead to the ultimate eviction of those smokers who've been cited. With the lines for on-campus housing piling up, could this surge in smoking-policy enforcement be aimed at clearing the way for new residents?

Since RAs have declined to comment, nothing is known for certain, and this is just purely speculation. Perhaps the smoke-free campus campaigns are behind the increase in enforcement.

Whether smokers are being targeted to clear the way for more residents, the controversy over smoking rules remains strong. It is only perpetuated by their increased enforcement.

Whichever side of the issue people are on, one thing is universally clear: housing holds the right to supersede state law. While smoking may not be an issue of top concern for most people at UC Merced, housing's ability to override state law is surely a potential issue for everybody.

Tom Gustafson, a freshman at UC Merced, hails from San Diego. He'll probably major in philosophy and is a staff writer and photographer for The Prodigy student publication.