Dept. of Health and Human Services unveils national smoke-free initiative

Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, speaks at the School of Public Health on Wednesday. Buy this photo

BY BETHANY BIRON
Managing News Editor
Published September 12, 2012

More than a year after the implementation of its smoke-free campus policy, the University became the site of the official launch of a national initiative dedicated to expanding tobacco-free living at campuses across the country.

At an event at the School of Public Health on Wednesday afternoon, Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, officially announced the Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative. The program aims to increase the number of college campuses with tobacco-free policies — currently at 17 percent nationally — and promote healthier learning and living environments.

University officials, students and community members gathered to hear Koh’s announcement, as well as to listen to speeches from University President Mary Sue Coleman and a panel that featured Robert Winfield, the University’s chief health officer.

During his speech, Koh lauded the University — officially smoke free since July 1, 2011 — for its dedication to instilling an anti-tobacco culture and becoming an inspiration for colleges around the country.

“We are here to thank you for your leadership, recognize your leadership, and say that your actions last year have already had a significant impact on the health of your students, faculty, employees and staff,” Koh said.

Koh emphasized smoking’s role as the leading preventable cause of death in the country, with projected numbers reaching one billion smoking-related deaths in the 21st century. He added that though the country has made significant progress in cutting down on tobacco use, it has become a neglected effort in recent years.

“So many of my patients suffered preventable suffering and died preventable deaths from tobacco dependence,” he said, “So it is very troubling right now in our country — despite the fact that we have had great progress in tobacco control in recent decades — that too many have taken this progress for granted and have ruled their attention elsewhere.”

Additionally, he said current data shows that the number of young people who begin smoking after age 18 has climbed from 600,000 annually a decade ago, to nearly one million, noting that approximately 25 percent of full-time college students age 18-22 are smokers.

“In the face of these challenges, the Tobacco Free College Campus Initiative that we are launching today represents an opportunity,” he said. “Campus policies, such as the ones that you enjoy here at the University of Michigan can protect health and support tobacco-free living for some 20 million students who are enrolled in institutes of higher learning.”

He called the new program an important historical collaboration between public and private officials dedicated to promoting a smoke-free culture that will become a new “social norm.”

“The goals are very important for public health in our country, and the outcomes are tangible and very relevant,” Koh said.

Coleman — who helped pioneer the smoke-free movement on campus by creating the MHealthy program in 2003, an organization dedicated to improving health and well-being at the University — said the decision to enact the policy was “very deliberate and very methodical.”

“It has to be a concerted effort, that brings together all voices and all concerns of a campus community,” Coleman said.

Over the course of two years, Coleman, along with Winfield and Kenneth Warner, then-dean of the School of Public Health, worked to develop the program, using feedback from students, staff and faculty.

“As a community we have worked hard to reduce cigarette smoking and to become a smoke-free campus,” Coleman said. “More important than working hard though, is that we’ve worked together.”

Rackham student Ishwarya Venkat said in an interview after the event that she believes the University’s smoke-free initiative has been critical in establishing a healthier campus environment.

“I think it’s really important that we have a healthy environment to live and study in,” she said.

She added that she foresees the Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative being successful and making a national impact if approached effectively.

“If it’s implemented in the right way, I see it being very successful. We have the ability to create an impact,” she said.