A highly contested topic and often ignored policy on campus was discussed Monday morning and afternoon in the Center for Tomorrow, where the New York State Tobacco-Free Initiative met for its first of four conferences across the state.
The conference focused on the implementation and maintenance of a tobacco-free policy on campuses, included panel discussions from experts in the field, and spoke of various resources offered on campuses. The resounding message regarding a tobacco-free initiative was that it must be based on respect.
"It's a public health issue; we want to make sure the air is clean for everybody," said Jennifer Sullivan, director of strategic health alliances for the ACS (American Cancer Society) and organizer of the conferences. "We're not saying people don't have a right to smoke… they're more than welcome to, and they can do it in a place where it's not affecting others."
Sullivan was originally looking to hold the conferences at the SUNY campuses, but expanded her focus when she realized that many campuses across the state were also working on implementation. The conference served to educate attendees on the importance of such a policy.
"A lot of people ask if their [enrollment] numbers will decline if they implement a policy. There's no data that says it does or it doesn't. We don't have that data captured yet," Sullivan said. "But as far as we've seen with the campuses that we have spoken with and surveyed, they have not seen any drops. It's actually welcomed; a lot of parents… really want their children to be in an atmosphere that is healthy and promotes good health."
The partners in the Tobacco-Free Initiative are the ACS Colleges Against Cancer, the NYS Department of Health's Colleges for Change program (C4C), and the National Center for Tobacco Policy, co-directed by the keynote speaker, Ty Patterson.
Lung and bronchial cancers account for more cancer deaths than all others combined, and there's a direct correlation between tobacco use and cancer incidence, according to Sullivan. A point later mentioned by Patterson announced a similar sentiment: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10 percent of the population suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or COPD-related breathing disorders that are exacerbated by exposure to smoke.
"The reality is there is still a substantial amount of students and employees on your campus that are already compromised in terms of a diagnosis of COPD or another related ailments, which is adversely related to second-hand smoke and third-hand smoke," Patterson said.
Patterson mentioned the problem with tobacco public policy – the laws restricting tobacco in the U.S. are based on purchasing and possession, but there is no law establishing that a person can't use tobacco. He describes this as the reason why tobacco-restriction policies have been scrutinized in court. He believes that tobacco use is not only open to restriction, but has also been clearly restricted in the past.
"When [students] tell us they disagree with our policies, and they think they're stupid, and they think it's appropriate to be non-compliant, and we're allowing them to get away with this behavior, are we acting in their interests?" Patterson asked. "The world of work that we're preparing our students to go out and be successful in operates in a whole different kind of way about policy, rules and regulations. You go to work and there's a policy you don't agree with… that you should be able to be non-compliant with the policy, what happens? Is that a key to success in that corporate environment? Of course not; so why would we allow that with our students?"
Patterson acknowledges that many perceive such a policy as taking away a right, as he has endured criticism in the past for being a student affairs administrator and restricting his students from using tobacco. However, he maintains that the policy is simply out of respect for others and the environment.
"I do not believe that the most effective rationale for a policy is to get an adult to quit doing something that the person chooses to do, because I'm more interested in their well-being than they are," Patterson said. "First of all, if we're talking about doing something out of respect for others and the environment, the first thing we have to do is stop dehumanizing tobacco users, stop vilifying them, stop treating them as if they're bad people and start trying to understand them better.… If they choose to smoke or chew tobacco and they're of age, that's their right. We have the question of asking: ‘what's in the best interest for our campus?'"
Peer pressure was also an important topic addressed at the conference. Patterson asserted that students consistently over-report and overestimate the percentage of their peers that use tobacco or smoke. Patterson believes that taking smoking away from the campus environment altogether would begin to mitigate the peer pressure problem.
Sharlynn Daun-Barnett, an alcohol, tobacco, and other drug prevention specialist in Wellness Education Services, further explained this misperception of smoking on campus. The National College Health Assessment, done every three years and administered at UB in 2007 and 2010, found some striking misconceptions regarding tobacco use.
"We found that students at UB really grossly misperceive smoking on our campus. Seventy-two percent of UB students have never used cigarettes, but the UB students think that only seven percent have never used cigarettes. What's more is that four percent of students smoke daily, and students think that 24 percent of students smoke daily," Daun-Barnett said. "I don't know if this is just an element of our culture, that people overestimate negative behavior and underestimate healthy habits, or perhaps because we are smoke-free, that you notice a smoker more and you might think there are more of them. Now that you're expecting to see no one [smoke], perhaps they're more striking than they were before."
Additionally, student opinion regarding tobacco use on campus seems to point toward smoke-free environments. Every year, AlcoholEdu administers a survey to freshmen and transfer students that must be completed. In the 2009 and 2010 surveys, the tobacco questions revealed some telling trends. Students seem to be growing up in a different social culture than students of the last decade, and having regulations like smoke-free campuses, restaurants, and theaters (in addition to increased taxes on cigarettes) is helpful to these new students, according to Daun-Barnett.
"Ninety-seven percent of them say that second-hand smoke is an important issue in their lives. Ninety-five percent of them say that knowing the tobacco industry heavily targets college students is an important issue for them," Daun-Barnett said. "Ninety-eight percent say that the environmental impact of cigarettes is important in that cigarette butts are the world's greatest litter problem; 4.3 trillion butts are littered annually and they take 25 years to decompose. Ninety-six percent of freshmen students say that tobacco use regulations, which are proven to reduce tobacco use rates, are important."
Wellness Education Services will be providing a smoke-free supporter workshop Wednesday from 4 to 5 p.m. in 235 Student Union. Additionally, quit smoking walk-in clinics are offered every Tuesday from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. and Wednesday from 1 to 3 p.m. in Wellness Education Services at 114 Student Union. Individual quit smoking consultations are available for students at Wellness Education Services, and faculty and staff can get help at the Employee Assistance Program, located at 156 Parker Hall.
"We continually must evaluate balancing individual rights against the rights of the rest of the institution," Patterson said.