What is UMSU smoking?

I was walking out of GPA’s on campus the other day, having just purchased some chips and an energy drink — healthy guy that I am — when I noticed a man buying some cigarettes. Clearly I am not the most aware individual, since this was the first time I had seen someone purchasing cigarettes on campus, nor was I even aware cigarettes were available. For a few moments I thought nothing of it, and then something came to mind: Why is it okay for an UMSU business to sell cigarettes while at the same time UMSU has crusaded against water bottles on campus? If the UMSU water bottle campaign is really about the environment and health issues, then isn’t it just a tad hypocritical for them to make money from a product that is responsible for death, disease and suffering?

Let me be very clear, I don’t think cigarettes should be banned for purchase on campus. There is a demand for cigarettes among some students, and these students pay their fees like everyone else, so they have a right to purchase cigarettes with their own money. What bothers me is when a student union attempts to present itself as a moral force on an issue such as banning water bottles, while at the same time selling a product unquestionably more harmful than the one they are seeking to ban.

When asked about the issue of cigarettes in late 2009, former UMSU President Sid Rashid had this to say: “I don’t think it’s an issue of ethical or non-ethical. The product [is] not illegal; we’re not forcing it on students. It’s a choice just like beer at a vendor. We don’t promote it.” Mr. Rashid is absolutely correct. Though he was speaking about cigarettes, if you apply his words to the issue of selling water bottles, the statement holds the same truth. Buying water bottles is a choice, and it’s a choice you should be free to make.

The irony of the water bottle campaign is that UMSU is using your money, collected through mandatory fees, to tell you how you can spend your money. After all the tuition and fees that we pay, UMSU shouldn’t be trying to tell us what we can and can’t buy with the money we have left in our nearly empty wallets.

This comes down to an issue deeper than just water bottles or cigarettes; it’s about respect for individual choice. When I pay my tuition and student fees, I’m paying for an opportunity to learn and for a student union to provide the basic services we all rely on. I am not paying to fund political campaigns that attempt to reduce my choices and impose someone else’s idea of morality upon me.

As I was checking out various articles about the bottled water issue, I came across this opinion by economist Daniel Hamermesh from an article in the New York Times:

“Presumably, they figure that bottled-water consumers will switch to tap water, as tap water is bottled water’s closest substitute. I wonder — aren’t bottled soft drinks a closer substitute? Don’t people want the convenience of a container at their desk rather than an occasional drink at the water cooler (or a cup to be filled at the water cooler)?

“This ban may well simply lead to substitution from bottled water to bottled soft drinks, with no reduction in pollution. Worse still, people will be substituting caloric soft drinks for zero-calorie water, so that the ban will help increase obesity among students and staff.
“University bureaucrats clearly don’t think about substitution by consumers, or about unintended consequences of quantity restrictions. Even by well-known standards of bureaucratic shortsightedness, this one is a real achievement.”

As Mr. Hamermesh points out, it is quite odd that there is no attempt to ban soft drink bottles, despite the fact that they are identical to water bottles, while containing a less healthy product.

This article has been quite critical of UMSU, and it’s important that I point out that I dont believe UMSU is filled with bad people. On the water bottle issue, as with many others, Im confident their hearts are in the right place. Despite good intentions, however, there must be an understanding that we are all at the age where we make our own decisions about how to live our lives and how to spend our money. I do not believe it is UMSU’s job to tell us what is right and what is wrong. If UMSU truly wants to help us and represent us, they can start by recognizing our independence and our ability to make our own choices. If we are free to buy cigarettes on campus, we should be free to buy bottled water as well. If you don’t like water bottles, nobody is forcing you to buy them. If you do like them, then you should be able to get them. The only person who should have the right to make that choice is you.

Spencer Fernando is the International Comment Coordinator for The Manitoban.