PUBLIC HEALTH

Number of smoke-free college campuses triples as U.S. accelerates anti-tobacco push

It's no longer a "Mad Men" world.

Recent college grad Jonathan Allen first became passionate about anti-smoking programs when, as a child, riding around with his mother in the car, he would gently poke fun at her for her smoking, pretending to have asthma attacks.

His hatred of smoking continued to his college days. And partly because of his efforts at his Louisiana college and advocacy on the issue, all public colleges and universities in the state have banned smoking on their campuses. Even his mother has quit, which Allen calls "his biggest accomplishment."

Louisiana colleges are joining the more than 1,343 college and university campuses that have banned smoking and/or tobacco use as of April 29, up from 446 in 2010.

The huge increase can be tied to many factors: Smoking continues its downward descent into uncoolness as social awareness grows of smoking's bad effects. The federal government has gotten into the game of urging colleges to ban the practice and giving technical assistance for bans. And better-organized student activists, college leaders on their own and state legislatures are increasingly becoming more active in stopping students, faculty and staff from lighting up.

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In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services launched the Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative, which aims to "accelerate" the trend and provides expertise to colleges wanting to stop campus smoking. The initiative partners with the American College Health Association and the University of Michigan and is funded mostly by the American Legacy Foundation.

Foremost in many of these people's minds are the dangers of secondhand smoke, a known human carcinogen that is linked to lung cancer and, according to the American Cancer Society, contains 7,000 chemical compounds. "More than 250 of these chemicals are known to be harmful, and at least 69 are known to cause cancer," the society says on its website.

Many colleges have also come to the view that it's unfair for nonsmoking students to have to wade through clouds of smoke as they enter and leave their dorms, classroom buildings and libraries, which all have been popular places for smokers to get their fix.

"If the campus goes through the process properly and there are stories in the newspaper, there is information in either staff newsletters or paycheck stuffers, and there's communication about the policy as it's being developed," then implementation is usually smooth as long as there's a phase-in date, said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, which keeps track of the number of colleges that have banned campus smoking or tobacco use.

Even in the Deep South and traditional-tobacco states like North Carolina and Kentucky, many universities are joining the cause.

Allen, a May 2013 graduate of the historically black Grambling State University, began to work to ban smoking during his sophomore year and even was elected student body president. From that perch, he pushed the institution for a ban on campus use of tobacco.

He and fellow students would see cigarette litter on the campus and ask: "Where are these cigarette butts coming from? And we found that it was coming from professors. They were the ones outside the building smoking." Students, he said, were more into marijuana.

His pitch for a ban? "We were concerned about your health, we were concerned about you as individuals, and we wanted you to live longer and healthier lives, so that was what our push for, our genuine concern for the lives of everyone at Grambling."

Tonia Moore, associate director of the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living, said it was particularly important to stop students from taking up the habit in the first place.

"We realize that college students at age 18 are the first year the target of the tobacco industry, and then on campus, there are definitely a lot of experimental habits and things that are being picked up," she said. "Those that are 18 years of age and older start smoking as a social habit, and they end up becoming actual smokers. They may say, 'Hey, I'll quit in two or three years,' and they're still smoking."

In 2013, Louisiana's Legislature passed and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed a law mandating that by August this year, public colleges and universities must have smoke-free campuses.

An Altria Group Inc. spokesman said the company, which owns Philip Morris, has not taken a stand specifically on college campus bans. However, its website does say, in general, "smoking should be permitted outdoors except in very particular circumstances, such as outdoor areas primarily designed for children."

'You don't have a right to smoke'

Cliff Douglas, director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network, said banning smoking is most effective when colleges "place it in a larger context of health," he said. "Campuses deal with these issues all the time in terms of alcohol, mental health, suicide prevention, and tobacco use is just sort of brought within that rubric, and it shouldn't be separate; it's really part of the whole."

While colleges may evoke memories of carefree living and partying, endless socializing with friends and even some learning, they are also workplaces for millions of Americans, Nobel Prize-winning scientists as well as the part-time midnight janitor.

After cities and states started passing laws prohibiting smoking in workplaces in the 1970s, campuses weren't often covered under those policies, either since they weren't thought of as workplaces or because of jurisdictional issues.

College students love to experiment, but what some may not realize is if they start smoking as a social habit during college, it may be hard for them to stop if they become addicted. So that's one of the reasons states and universities are trying to make it harder for young people to smoke by taking away easy locations for them to do so.

And although the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement required tobacco companies to stop marketing to youth under the legal age to buy cigarettes, it did nothing to remove the financial incentive for the industry, because to survive in the long term, it needs a steady supply of new young smokers.

Tobacco companies are pinning their hopes on introducing e-cigarettes to young Americans, which is another development colleges have to deal with.

The University System of Georgia in March approved its own ban on smoking, which will cover 31 colleges and universities, 47,000 employees and 310,000 students.

Marion Fedrick, the vice chancellor for human resources, said there was no "serious fact-based opposition," but there were scattered concerns from some students and even citizen letters.

"It's truly about the health care and the environment," she said, adding, "You don't have a right to smoke."

Katie Zhang, a pharmacy student at Northeastern University, helped lead efforts that started in the fall of 2012 to ban smoking on her urban campus in Boston.

She noted that the campus is usually dense, with many students walking around on the compact campus, "so being in the proximity of the smokers is something that is very noticeable for people who are not smoking. ... The smoke would come right in between your face."

Since the smoke-free policy came into effect last fall, Zhang said, "There is absolutely a significantly and very noticeable reduction in the rates of smoking at Northeastern."

There's also an online reporting system so people can submit reports if they see someone smoking on campus. Smokers who violate the policy can get information and guidance on quitting from "peer ambassadors." The Northeastern University Police Department also assists in looking for violations. Call it the smoke patrol or the cigarette cops.

Twitter: @dlippman | Email: dlippman@eenews.net

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