Smoking ban to evolve with incoming president

By Max Radwin, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 25, 2013

University President Mary Sue Coleman will leave behind a healthier student body when her appointment ends this summer.

July will mark three years since the University made its campus smoke-free through the Smoke-Free University Initiative, which the University administration hopes to improve and expand under the incoming president.

The Smoke-Free University Initiative was developed under MHealthy, a presidential initiative established in 2005 that encouraged a healthier community through cost-effective health delivery, public discussions about healthy living and campaigns like the smoking ban.

When the initiative was proposed, the University waited two years to make implementation plans.

“I think campuses that tried to (ban smoking) from one day to the next with no preparation just didn’t work,” Coleman said in a 2011 interview.“So this gives us some time, and we’ll try to resolve the issues. I think it’s the right way to go.”

After approving the ban, Coleman took a hands-off approach to the planning and implementation of the initiative. Robert Winfield, chief health officer and director of University Health Service, spearheaded the operation.

In the two years spent researching, five committees representing different aspects of campus developed questionnaires, held town halls and organized student focus groups.

“Primarily, they wanted to be sure that the program was respectful to smokers and it wouldn’t in some way demean them and make them into some kind of pariah,” Winfield said of student input. “The principle of the program was being respectful to smokers, (but) creating an environment on campus that was not smoke-welcome.”

From this research, the University chose not to install “butt huts” to allow for the disposal of finished cigarettes, believing it would encourage smoking rather than stifle it. It also chose to allow smoking on sidewalks adjacent to road in an effort to prevent smokers from moving onto the property of city businesses.

Marsha Benz, alcohol and other drugs health educator for UHS, consulted student focus groups in her role in the development of the campaign. She said they expressed a desire to see posters that showed them what else they could be spending their cigarette money on, rather than being told they were going to get cancer.

Students noted that trying to quit could be more expensive than maintaining the habit, so the University offers smokers free patches, lozenges, gum and other consultations if they join a weekly smoking support group.

The University also decided that enforcing the initiative should not be punitive, but rather rooted in changing social norms. In addition to posters, stenciled sidewalk chalk messages appeared during Welcome Week and in smoker hotspots in the earlier months of the ban.

University Police do not enforce the initiative and do not issue tickets to people smoking on campus. Instead, students can file a complaint about smokers at the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, while supervisors handle complaints from faculty and staff.

“The principle that we went for was treating people with respect,” Winfield said. “Not using law enforcement, trying to use social norms and social pressures and cultural pressures to get people to not smoke on campus and to consider quitting.”

A survey conducted in November 2012 demonstrates the effectiveness of those two years of research, as well as the decision to approach enforcement through a collective effort. The survey reported that the number of people who said they smoked dropped from six to four percent. Thirteen percent of faculty and staff said the initiative helped influence their decision or attempt to quit smoking.

Despite these figures, LSA senior Jonathan Kang said he doesn’t think the majority of students comply with or acknowledge the initiative.

“A lot of people haven't taken into consideration that there's a smoking ban,” Kang said. “I haven't really noticed a difference since I was a freshman.”

Kang, who started smoking habitually two years ago, said that he usually respects the no-smoking policy, but most people don’t care.

“I think a lot of it's because it's not reinforced,” Kang said. “I've never had anyone come up to me and say, ‘hey, there's a smoking ban on campus, and you should put that out.’ ”

In an effort to make this invisible social enforcement less transparent, Benz said the University is developing a smoke-free ambassador program similar to the one at the University of Kentucky. Ambassadors would hand out informational packets, toothbrushes and candy to on-campus smokers.

Benz also said she is working with Central Student Government to develop a way to show students how to address someone they see smoking on campus.

Smoking hotspots have also been a problem. Winfield identified the Hatcher Graduate Library steps, the front of the Michigan League, an overhang on the side of the Michigan Union, the Duderstadt Center and the backside of Mary Markley Residence Hall adjacent to the hospital as some areas where smokers frequent, but he did not provide a specific plan for eliminating them.

These issues — as well as spit tobacco, snooze and e-cigarettes — will be receive greater attention after a new University president takes office, Winfield said. He noted that the momentum of initiatives to create a culture of health has been too strong to wane in the future.

“This is going on all over the country, and I can't foresee any backing off,” he said. “But this is not a good time to make any adjustments to the policy; the president's leaving in less than a year.”