Cian Carton takes a look at what the ban on the sale of tobacco products in UCD may have in store, along with an observation upon the referendum policy of UCD Students’ Union.
Last year, UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU) adopted the policy that “this union supports the smoke free campus initiative, as proposed by the UCD Health Promotion Committee” on the back of a yes vote in a campus-wide referendum. One year on, it has begun to implement this policy and has started with banning the sale of cigarettes on campus from the beginning of term.
Interestingly, the vote was arguably meaningless, as the university itself has all the power in this situation. The university could impose a complete ban on smoking within its grounds if it wished. A no vote would not have stopped the UCD Health Promotion committee from pursuing its own agenda, which last September was calling for a smoke free campus to be implemented by October 2014.
The ban is not expected to have any major impact on shop sales, given that cigarettes are more of a low margin item than primarily a revenue-generating product. Still, Feargal Hynes, UCDSU President, expressed concerns about the feasible spin off loss from the ban, alongside the possibility that the demand for cigarettes would drive students to off-campus shops.
Fears that a black market cigarette operation could start up have not been directly addressed, as there appears to be a wait-and-see approach to how the ban itself works out by governing bodies. A long walk to buy cigarettes may tempt some to seek alternative means. Just as the laws of economics ring true, the ban creates a void in the marketplace that some may seek to fill.
Upon its introduction at the beginning of September, national media coverage failed to go beyond the referendum’s 55%-45% vote in favour of the proposal. On paper, it appears like a large majority. The actual turnout was relatively low, with 1413 voting in favour of the proposal and 1143 voting against it.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to say that the total possible electorate was 25,000 students, a figure thrown around far too liberally that it has almost reached god-like status. There is nowhere near that amount of people passing through campus on any one day.
Similarly, it would be unfair to say that voter turnout was too low. For example, 4309 voted in a 2010 referendum to overturn the ban on products made by Cola-Cola being sold on campus, which was held on the same day as the Sabbatical elections.
Arguably, people were more inclined to vote in that one given it occurred on election day. However, it could be said that they were just handed another piece of paper upon which to tick, that the vote lost its importance within the election campaign.
Nevertheless, Hynes acknowledged that the SU must fight to encourage voter participation, that “people would see it as an opportunity to have their say rather than just being harassed going down the concourse by someone.” The challenge facing the SU on that front cannot be overstated.
The central debate on smoking comes down to the right of choice, perhaps. It draws divisions with regard to smoking in public places, where the competing rights of individuals come to the fore. The most common complaint about UCD’s smokers are their apparent love of lighting up at the entrances of the main buildings on campus. Attempts to drive smokers away from the entrance of the Newman building are more fervent than ever this year, with a wall of plants the latest deployment in the war.
Kevin Beirne, then editor of The University Observer, summed up the anti-smoking brigade in an editorial column last year, arguing that by “smoking in a public places, you’re pretty much telling everyone around you that your desire to poison yourself is more important than their desire to not be poisoned.” Let the clamour for designated smoking areas commence.
The implementation of the ban makes UCD the first university in Ireland to try this new approach, with DIT and Trinity monitoring it closely. Trinity students’ opposition to a similar ban won out by a narrow margin in a referendum last year. Given that UCD is now the test subject, there will no doubt be more commentary on this issue over the coming year