PORTLAND – A proposed bill in front of the Legislature — An Act to Protect Public Health at Public Institutions of Higher Education (L.D. 468) — would ban cigarette smoking on all Maine public higher education campuses and allow all of us to “breathe easy” when studying at, working at and visiting Maine’s public institutions of higher education.

Tobacco smoke endangers the health of both the smoker and those exposed to secondhand smoke. The National Institutes of Health estimate that tobacco smoke is responsible for one-fifth of U.S deaths and is our leading cause of preventable death and illness. The Surgeon General cites secondhand smoke exposure as a cause of lung and heart disease.

Smoking restrictions have proven to be a major public health tool. Indoor smoking restrictions, which have been in place in the United States since the early 1970s, reduce smoking, disease and hospitalizations and save lives — for both smokers and nonsmokers.

We are just beginning the study of the health impact of outdoor exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke. However, we do know that tobacco smoke pollution near an outdoor smoker reaches levels similar to those found near indoor smokers and that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke causes cardiovascular changes related to heart-disease risk nearly as large as the effects from chronic smoking.

This suggests that exposure to outdoor secondhand cigarette smoke may indeed be harmful and justifies the Surgeon General’s assessment that there is no safe level of tobacco smoke exposure.

Regardless of the risk of outdoor smoking to bystanders, no one disputes that smoking anywhere is bad for the smoker. Thus, L.D. 468 can be expected to reduce smoking and improve the health of the students, staff and faculty at Maine’s higher education institutions. L.D. 468 makes sense from a public health perspective.

Maine law now mandates that all indoor areas of Maine workplaces be 100 percent smoke-free. Maine law also prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants, both indoors and outdoors, and bans smoking at state parks and historic sites.

Some Maine municipalities, including Portland and South Portland, also prohibit outdoor smoking in public spaces such as parks and beaches.

Several Maine hospitals, including Mercy Hospital in Portland and Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, have smoke-free campus rules, while the majority of University Maine System campuses and at least one Maine Community College (Kennebec Valley Community College) are smoke-free. Thus, L.D. 468 would very much be in step with current trends toward expanding smoke-free Maine to include outdoor public spaces.

There are several arguments commonly offered against smoking bans, none of which is convincing.

First, opponents of smoking bans claim that smoking is an individual choice that smokers should be free to make.

Smokers are physically addicted to nicotine, however. They are acting on a compulsion when they smoke, not making a free decision. The majority of smokers say they want to quit, and expanding smoke-free areas helps people quit.

Thus, legislation expanding smoke-free areas, including L.D. 468, should help smokers make the choice to quit; this is the choice most would make if they were not addicted and were truly free to do so.

This legislation will not take away anyone’s right to smoke because it will not make anyone quit. It will, however, provide one more tool that will help smokers who wish to quit stop smoking.

Second, opponents of smoking bans suggest that these bans represent an unwelcome expansion of government authority at the expense of individual rights.

But nicotine is addictive, and tobacco companies know it. If no legal restrictions exist, the “who, where and when” of smoking will be determined by the unfettered power of the tobacco companies through their advertising, not by individuals.

L.D. 468 is just an effort by the Legislature and the people of Maine to control their own surroundings rather than ceding control to large corporations that peddle a deadly and addictive product.

n Finally, smoking ban opponents suggest that these bans will be bad for the bottom line of institutions where they are adopted.

This argument has been raised whenever smoking bans have been proposed, both indoors and outdoors. It was raised even when Franklin Memorial Hospital went smoke-free. In reality, smoking bans virtually never hurt business. There are many more nonsmokers than smokers, and nonsmokers appreciate a smoke-free environment.

Taking all Maine’s higher education institutions smoke-free would also enhance their effectiveness. Most students come to Maine’s public colleges to get an education that they hope will lead to a good job. More and more workplaces are smoke-free, and an increasing number of employers, both in the health care sector and other areas, now refuse to even hire smokers.

Maine’s higher education institutions should be doing everything they can to help students who smoke to quit and to discourage students who do not smoke from starting. L.D. 468 will send a powerful message to students that their future success depends on their being tobacco-free.

David E. Harris, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Southern Maine School of Nursing in Portland.