joe camelAs academics and poseurs alike raise their lighters in revolt against the impending smoking ban, Students for Sensible Drug Policy have drafted an open letter to the Tobacco Workgroup protesting its methodology. The ban proposed by Michael McNeil and the Workgroup would outlaw smoking within Columbia’s property, even extending its reach to the surrounding sidewalks.

Although the Workgroup conducted a survey last spring and held a townhall meeting last week to hear student voices, our smoking scribes prove that Frontiers of Science has some use: they claim that the sample size was too small to indicate true sentiment.

 Full letter after the jump.

Dear Michael McNeil and the Tobacco Workgroup,   


We write this open letter on behalf of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a campus group that promotes sensible and effective approaches to policies regarding tobacco and other drugs. Naturally, our members are concerned about the efforts to ban smoking on the Morningside campus. More important than our stance on the issue, however, is our concern with the process by which this policy change may take place.   

As we understand, a survey to gauge student opinion was sent last spring, receiving less-than-impressive levels of response. In addition, a townhall meeting was held last week. While all attendees of the meeting opposed the current proposal, according to the straw-poll survey conducted, the turnout was still relatively low.   

  We believe this reaction is a result of the timing and advertisement of the email and townhall meeting, and not indicative of the opinions of the student body. The initial survey was not advertised well, and some students have reported that they did not even receive the survey. The townhall meeting was also under-advertised: although members of our group have been following the issue closely, we were only made aware of the meeting with less than one week’s notice. By the day of the meeting itself, many students who have not followed the initiative as avidly but still feel passionately about the efforts one way or the other were completely unaware that an important meeting was scheduled for that evening.   

This lack of advertising is disturbing, because it appears to be the student body’s only opportunity to provide feedback on the proposal. A second survey is due to be sent next week; however, the survey has not been officially announced to the student body, and access would be limited to a small sample of students. In addition, it appears that this sample would be stratified, which raises important questions about the way that the survey will be conducted. Stratification can introduce selection bias into survey results, as not all groups of people will feel the burden of a ban equally. (Undergraduates who live on campus, for example, will be affected more than graduate students and professors who live off-campus). More disturbing is the news that the sample size may not be fixed in advance. Variable sample sizes can lead to grossly distorted statistics. And, finally, the entire survey will be administered only to a portion of the student body. For the majority of students who will not be sent the survey, the under-advertised townhall meeting was the only avenue by which to influence the process.       

Despite what the townhall meeting and initial survey might suggest, our group maintains that the student body is far from apathetic. A few weeks ago, our group hosted an event on the steps of Low to raise awareness of the proposed ban. In just over one hour, we were able to collect the names and signatures of 75 students who opposed the proposal. We believe that our ability to collect signatures at such a high rate – more than one per minute – demonstrates that there is strong campus interest about this issue. The problem is that students are unaware of any ways to vocalize their thoughts to the administration and the Tobacco Workgroup.   

Given the importance of this proposal and the large impact it would have on smokers and nonsmokers alike, as well as for cultural groups on campus that smoke hookah, we would like to open the path for dialogue about the proposal between the student body, the administration, and the Tobacco Workgroup. Many people on campus have strong opinions on both sides of this issue, and these people deserve a direct and open line of communication with both the Workgroup and the administration, so that they can influence a policy that impacts them so significantly.


Students for Sensible Drug Policy