University of Tobacco

By Patrick Boyle

According to the dictionary of hackneyed cliches, necessity makes strange bedfellows and over the years, the Students’ Union has provided numerous examples. Recently the student body was treated to one such illustration when the Calgary Herald ran a story about a sponsorship deal allegedly cut between the SU and American tobacco manufacturer Rothmans Inc. Predictably, the news prompted a firestorm of discussion in the university community, even attracting a whopping 15 posts to the SU online forums.

Unfortunately for the would-be martyrs from the anti-smoking and anti-corporate circles, it turns out the article was mostly unsubstantiated. Facts are few and far between, but the story that’s been scraped together so far indicates that this year’s Students’ Legislative Council inherited an agreement from their predecessors. Furthermore, it seems that this year’s executive managed to shorten the deal so the question can be addressed by the next generation of SU bureaucracy.

Although SU President Jayna Gilchrist and her crew seem to have quieted the teeming masses for the moment, the flare up has opened the door for the discussion of a very important topic. Surely this will have to be addressed eventually, whether it is by this year’s elected officials or by a future generation. Now that the students know such an arrangement is a possibility, it’s time for us to do what democracies do best–discuss it.

Should the SU cut an exclusivity deal with a tobacco company? Absolutely. In an age when purse strings are tight, groups all over campus are being challenged to find new and innovative ways to make ends meet. Personally, I’m kind of upset the SU hasn’t already cut a long-term deal. If it weren’t for the current budgetary woes at the University of Calgary, Big Tobacco would be willing to line our pockets with a far healthier sum. As it stands, the cancer merchants have us by the balls.

The anti-smoking zealots on campus feel it would be noble and honourable for the SU to stop selling cigarettes at their convenience store, but what would that accomplish? Would it encourage smokers to quit? Would it reduce the amount of smoking on campus? I think not. The only consequence would be an added inconvenience for on-campus smokers and a hit to the SU’s profits.

A few short days ago, no one cared about how much money the SU rakes in by selling tobacco to the university community. Now, thanks to a single piece of shoddy journalism, a simple budget question has been seized by the moral crusaders who mistakenly equate profiting from the sale of tobacco to encouraging the use of tobacco. What they fail to realize is people are going to buy cigarettes regardless of whether or not the SU sells them. Why not take advantage of the situation and squeeze as much money as we can from the teat of industry?

Perhaps the saddest part of the whole fiasco is that the elected officials botched a chance to nip the problem at the bud. The original story, filled with vagaries, also featured a statement from Gilchrist. Instead of setting the record straight then and there, she pussyfooted around the issue and plead that her hands are tied by budgetary constraints. How amusing that the SU is eager to tout their "fifth largest operating budget of students’ unions in Canada" until they feel the need to offer a palatable rationalization for a marginally controversial deal.

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