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University leads charge in national anti-smoking effort

By Kaitlin Zurdosky, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 16, 2014

As research on the dangers of smoking continues to accumulate, the University’s smoke-free initiative is proving to be a model for institutions across the nation.

The Surgeon General reported Thursday an estimated 16 million Americans are living with a smoking-related disease. Another half million Americans die from smoking-related diseases each year, and tobacco use remains the leading cause of death both domestically and globally.

“This is a uniquely damaging health problem in our society. Nothing else approaches it,” said Cliff Douglas, director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network and consulting adviser on tobacco control policy for the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health.

In September 2012, the School of Public Health, Douglas’s direction launched the national Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative. As a partner in the initiative, the School of Public Health, in association with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the American College Health Association, conducted a national effort to eliminate smoking on college campuses across the country.

The University’s Smoke-Free Campus Initiative, under the direction of Robert Winfield, chief health officer and director of University Health Service was, launched in July 2011 due to concerns from students and staff smoking around common campus buildings and living areas. Students and faculty were supplied with free counseling, nicotine gum and patches to help them quit smoking. The program has proven successful, with research showing a drop in smoking across campus.

Since the policy didn’t carry the force of law, the program was not enforced by University Police. Rather, to prepare people around campus, advertising began a year and a half before the initiative’s launch to inform the public about the transition. The primary communication medium involves placing signs on all trashcans around campus to inform visitors of the policy and serve as a reminder for students and faculty.

In the 16 months following a national rollout, the initiative has found many successes. At least 1,182 campuses around the nation are smoke-free, reflecting an increase in national smoke-free campus policies of 52.7 percent. Many campuses, including the University’s, are also completely tobacco-free.

The School of Public Health’s goal in the project was to help change social norms around smoking behaviors. Since people are largely unaware of the extraordinarily harmful effects of tobacco use, the campaign helped to improve awareness of the consequences of tobacco addiction while also reducing the opportunity to smoke. According to Douglas, most people who smoke intend to quit at some point, and inducing tobacco-free policies helps them to break the addiction and stop smoking habits.

The University’s Risk Science Center specializes in helping people to make informed decisions about human health risks. Led by Andrew Maynard, director of the University's Risk Science Center and National Science Foundation international chair of environmental health sciences, the center focuses on communication and online engagement. The program aims to not only provide people with health information but also to help them understand the risks involved and make the best health decisions for themselves.

Maynard’s latest “Risk Bites” video, part of a YouTube project promoting health risk information, features the benefits and consequences of electronic cigarettes, which are growing in popularity.