November 2009 | Home
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November 11, 2009
When it comes to bad-for-you behavior, smoking is at the top of everyone's list. It kills with deadly efficiency, stealing years of life expectancy from its victims. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one of every five deaths in the U.S. is caused, directly or indirectly, by smoking. So when President Mary Sue Coleman announced last April that the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn campuses will go smoke-free on July 1, 2011, it seemed like a good idea. University officials say a smoke-free environment will improve the health of UM's faculty, staff and students. They point out that more than 300 other colleges and universities, including four Big Ten schools, already have adopted smoke-free campus policies.
But while the intentions may be good, the devil is in the details: Exactly where is the borderline between university property and public property owned by the City of Ann Arbor? Will campus police issue tickets for smoking in parking structures? How far should a university that treasures individual rights go to stop people who want to smoke on campus?
Like most colleges and universities, UM has been gradually tightening the noose on smoking for years. In 1987, UM officials banned smoking in university buildings and vehicles, although it was still allowed in residence halls set aside for smokers. UM's Residence Hall Association prohibited smoking in public areas of all residence halls in 1994, and extended the ban to all residence hall rooms in 2003. In 1999, the UM Health System implemented a smoke-free environment on its grounds, going beyond the university ban of smoking inside buildings. On other parts of the campus, current university policy requires smokers to go outside and stay "a reasonable distance from entrances" to buildings, dormitories, and apartments.
To work out all the messy details of how the UM will transition to a smoke-free campus, Coleman created a Smoke-Free University Steering Committee and asked Robert Winfield, UM's chief health officer, and Kenneth Warner, dean of the School of Public Health, to serve as co-chairs. Along with a diverse group of nearly 120 faculty, students, staff, and community members—including smokers, non-smokers, and former smokers—appointed to five subcommittees, Winfield and Warner will spend the next year listening to comments at informational meetings and developing a plan to implement the new smoke-free policy. The steering committee will present its plan to Coleman, who will make the final decision on the specific policy to become effective on July 1, 2011.
"This is a pro-health policy," emphasizes Warner. "It's consistent with President Coleman's priority of establishing a healthy university community." The steering committee's first meeting was in July, but they knew from the outset that the task would not be easy. One thorny issue is how to avoid shifting the problem to private businesses surrounding the campus.
"If we make all university property smoke-free and the weather is inclement and people come out of Hill Auditorium at intermission to smoke, how do we protect the Bell Tower Hotel from having 20 smokers clustered under its canopy?" ponders Winfield. "What if people just cross State Street to smoke in store entrances? There's already a cigarette butt problem on the streets. How do we prevent that from becoming worse?" "What do we do about public events like football tailgates?" asks Warner. "A lot of people want to smoke there. What about people smoking cigars on the golf courses? These are big issues, and I don't now know how we're going to resolve them."
North Campus has its own set of issues, because all the grounds, streets and sidewalks are believed to be university property. Many of the graduate students who live in North Campus apartments and work in North Campus buildings come from countries where smoking is much more common than in the U.S. "In some of these communities, up to 50 percent of males may smoke," says Winfield. "Will these students be able to smoke on the curbs of university roads? I don't know. That's the work of the committees."
How many smokers are there at UM? No one knows exactly. Based on self-reported data from 22,000 UM employees who applied for life insurance in 2007, Winfield estimates about 14 percent of UM faculty and staff members are smokers. He says about 16 percent of UM students surveyed in 2006 said they smoked at least one cigarette per month.
About 20 percent of U.S. adults are smokers, according to Warner, but the percentage varies widely among different socioeconomic groups. "Smoking prevalence among college graduates is under 10 percent, but in some blue-collar populations, it's in excess of 30 percent," he says.
Studies show that when a business adopts a smoke-free workplace policy, more employees stop smoking. In 1999, when the UM Health System instituted a smoke-free environment on the Medical Campus, it provided a network of support services— including counseling, nicotine gum, and patches—to help employees quit.
According to Linda Thomas, director of the Health System's Tobacco Consultation Services, the number of UMHS employees identifying themselves as smokers has fallen from 17 percent to between 11 percent and 12 percent since the services were implemented. Group and individual counseling programs are available to help employees quit smoking. About 31 percent of employees who complete the group program and 35 percent of those completing the individual program were still non-smokers 12 months later, Thomas says. Winfield says the university will provide similar cessation services at no cost to employees and students who want to stop smoking. There will also be co-pay reductions for faculty and staff on most prescription nicotine-cessation drugs, and a full subsidy for up to six months of certain over-the-counter patches and gums.
"Discontinuing smoking will require a long-term commitment, because nicotine is a powerful addictive drug," Winfield says. According to Warner, the mean number of attempts to quit before a smoker succeeds is about 10. That means some people quit on the first try and others never succeed. "Most smokers want to quit, and I have a great deal of sympathy for them," says Warner—a former smoker who tried four times to quit before giving cigarettes up for good in the mid-1970s. "Anything we can do to discourage young people from starting to smoke is a positive step."
Winfield admits the switch to a smokefree campus won't be easy, but believes it can be done. "I'm optimistic that we have set aside enough time to do this thoughtfully and in a manner that conveys respect for smokers," he says.
Winfield says university officials have set a few ground rules going in: Because it's a university policy—not a state law or city ordinance—there is no plan to issue tickets or fines for smoking on campus. Also, there will be no drug testing of existing, new, or prospective employees to determine if someone is a smoker. He adds that university attorneys are investigating other possible legal issues related to the new smoke-free policy.
In the meantime, if you have an opinion about these issues or ideas on how to create a smoke-free campus, the committee wants to know about them. Watch for an informational meeting near you or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
is a freelance writer who smoked her first and last cigarettes while she was a student at the University of Iowa.