Apr 23, 2013

One Year Later, Campus Tobacco Ban Has Some Holes

Photos by Brionne V. Griffin. Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

By Brionne V. Griffin
For Reporting Texas

More than a year after the University of Texas adopted a comprehensive ban on tobacco use, the results seem as hazy as the clouds of smoke coming from the numerous smokers who disregard the policy.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas told UT that future research funding — upwards of $80 million according to a UT press release — was contingent on the university adopting a tobacco-free policy.

Although university President William Powers originally opposed a ban, claiming that it would infringe on personal freedom, the UT System approved it. The policy, which went into effect April 9, 2012, bans the use of all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, chewing tobacco and shisha, which is used in hookahs.

More than a year into the  ban, how is it holding up? Of the 90 UT students, faculty and staff surveyed in an online poll, half said they see fewer people smoking today compared with a year ago.

Separately, the vice president for university operations analyzed complaints from the past year and identified 24 locations where tobacco use remains a problem. According to student observers, areas that had been designated as temporary smoking areas for a transition period that ended more than two months ago still attract a steady flow of smokers.

According to university policy, if someone observes an individual smoking, she “may inform the tobacco user of this policy and request that he/she comply.” The university provides suggested scripts for these encounters on the Tobacco Free FAQ page.

If the individual does not comply, details of the violation may be referred to the vice president for university operations for resolution. There is no fine or ticketing system at this time.

Laura Kunz, a spokeswoman for the research institute, said the organization requires that all buildings be tobacco-free if  research funded by CPRIT grants is taking place.

“UT Austin took it a step further and made their whole campus tobacco free,” Kunz said. “If CPRIT’s policy was a conduit for the ban, then great, but CPRIT did not require that.”

Furthermore, Kunz said, CPRIT is not monitoring whether the policy is enforced.

In an informal online survey, Reporting Texas asked UT students, faculty, and staff, “Do you smoke or see people smoking at UT more, less, or the same as compared to a year ago (before the smoking ban)?” Of the 116 responders, 54.3 percent said they see people smoking less, 37.1 percent said they see the same amount, and 8.6 percent observed an increase in smoking since the ban’s inception.[1]

“There is less smoking on campus,” one respondent said, “but I would like to see no smoking on campus. There needs to be better monitoring of smokers and penalties involved for those who break the rules.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable disease and death worldwide. Every year, smoking-related diseases claim 443,000 lives, or 1 of every 5 lives lost in America.

A Gallup poll found that the number of smokers steadily declined from 2001 to 2011, with young adults showing the greatest decrease. In 2011, 25 percent of adults aged 18- to 29-years-old smoked, down from 34 percent in 2001.

When nonsmokers are exposed to secondhand smoke, their bodies metabolize or break down the nicotine in the smoke, creating a nicotine byproduct called cotinine, according to the CDC.

Nonsmokers who breathe secondhand smoke increase their risk of heart disease by 25 to 30 percent and their risk of lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The UT ban was the latest step in a series of tobacco restrictions imposed on campus. In 1991, UT adopted a non-smoking policy in all university buildings. In 2002, the restriction was expanded to areas within 20 feet of building entrances, open windows, ventilation systems and indoor or open-air athletic facilities, including the Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium, Disch-Falk Field and the Frank C. Erwin Center.

“I definitely think the ban could be better enforced,” said Michael Morton, a UT journalism senior and Senate of College Councils president. “I don’t know what the penalty for smoking is, if there even exists one at all. I’ve never seen anyone tell a person to put out a cigarette.”

Morton said he’s noticed a slight decrease in the number of people smoking while walking to class but that smoking still has a pretty big presence on campus.

“Overall, we’re very pleased with the progress the policy has made,” Adrienne Howarth-Moore, UT spokeswoman and director of Healthpoint, UT’s occupational health program, said. “Considering there are around 70,000 individuals on campus, the number of comments we’ve received have been fairly minor.”

Because it is not feasible to track every individual smoking issue, Howarth-Moore said, the university logs locations where repeated reports arise. These “hot spots” are assessed frequently, she said. Asked about the locations of the hot spots, Howarth-Moore was unable to recall any.

To ease the transition to the total ban, the university created temporary tobacco use locations on the main campus and the J.J. Pickle Research Campus. Those locations were closed on Feb. 28.

Morton said he’s noticed that smokers are heavily concentrated in former temporary tobacco use zones.

“There’s a large bench area outside the McCombs School, where many smokers congregate,” Morton said. “I’ve noticed they tend to gather in wide open areas, and I’ve never seen anyone smoking with a fear in their eyes that they’re going to get caught.”

One survey respondent also mentioned that area, saying, “They’re more condensed in the restricted smoking areas — like outside the McCombs school — but I think it’s less overall.”

As of April 5, 1,159 U.S. college or university campuses had adopted campus-wide 10 percent smoke-free policies to eliminate smoking indoors and outdoors, including residences.

After years of prohibiting indoor smoking, American University in Washington, D.C., will join the ranks when its campus-wide ban goes into effect on Aug. 1. AU President Neil Kerwin said in a press release the decision was a result of the university’s commitment to wellness, public health and sustainability.

“LEED building certifications also lend support for a smoke-free campus, as well as standards for campus cleanliness and less litter,” Kerwin said. LEED refers to a set of voluntary national green-building standards.

According to AU spokeswoman Maralee Csellar, details of the policy are still being ironed out.

“We are considering an ambassador volunteer program where we train the ambassadors how to approach someone who is smoking on campus,” Csellar said. “We are also intent on creating a campus culture where students feel comfortable approaching a smoker and asking them to stop.”

At UT, if a student wishes to make a complaint, they can send it through the UT Tobacco-Free Campus website. The email goes to the web design coordinator, who forwards it to the tobacco ban implementation team. If the email is a question about the ban, someone from the team replies. If the email addresses a smoking complaint, Howarth-Moore said, the building manager for that location is notified.

When there are repeated complaints about a location, Howarth-Moore said the team assesses the signage and behavior, and then notifies the building manager.

Another prominent smoker hangout is the former temporary tobacco use area outside the Littlefield Patio Cafe. It is rare to pass by the benches and not catch a whiff of tobacco from the huddled smokers.

Beverly Sutton, building manager of the Littlefield Patio Café, said when she sees people smoking, she hands them one of the UT tobacco-free campus cards and asks them to stop.

“The signs are right next to where they smoke,” Sutton said. “I assume they can read, but most of the smokers I approach say ‘Oh, I didn’t know’ and put it out.”

Sutton said she has never heard of the hot spots nor has she been notified about complaints at Littlefield by the implementation team.



[1] The poll was hosted on the website Poll Junkie and ran from April 5 to April 18, 2013. Respondents participated voluntarily by accessing the poll via Twitter and Facebook posts.