After five years, University policy on tobacco remains unclear
LSA sophomore Caitlin Walrath was casually smoking a cigarette near the fountain behind the Michigan Union Tuesday night — an area the University of Michigan designates as “smoke-free.”
Walrath was fully aware of the smoke-free policy when she lit her cigarette — after all, smoke-free campus stickers are pasted on trash cans around campus, literature on smoking cessation sits at the front of University Health Service and student ambassadors frequently hand out kits with tools and information about quitting to those they see violating the policy.
But despite the University’s efforts to keep students from smoking, Walrath said she smokes with friends at popular spots near campus buildings, calling herself an occasional, social smoker of both traditional cigarettes and vaporizers.
Needless to say, she does not think this smoke-free policy is effective.
“People smoke in non-smoking places regardless (of policies),” Walrath said. “It’s a fair policy, but should it even be there? Questionable, because no one’s going to follow it.”
As of this year, all three of the University’s campuses have been smoke-free for five years, and were one of the first colleges in the state to make the switch. However, for many students, the guidelines and feasibility of this initiative are still.
The initial decision to designate all University affiliated buildings as smoke-free in 2011 was part of then-University President Mary Sue Coleman’s MHealthy wellness campaign. This campaign, started in 2005, is still in effect today and includes programs geared toward improving and sustaining all aspects of health — whether physical, emotional or mental — on campus.
The decision to go smoke-free was made by a Smoke-Free University Steering Committee, composed of members of the campus community, in conjunction with Robert Winfield, the University’s chief health officer and Kenneth Warner, the dean of the School of Public Health at the time.
The initiative completely prohibits smoking on the Diag and near academic buildings. Smoking around residence halls had already been banned in 2003, according to the Smoke-Free University Initiative website.
The policy states that students who wish to smoke must do so in public spaces or on sidewalks further from University buildings.
Many faculty members and members of the initiative committee — including Kallie Bila Michels, current associate vice president for communications, Simone Himbeault Taylor, associate vice president for Human Resources and Linda Thomas, former manager of the Tobacco Consultation Service at the University of Michigan Health System — said at the time that they supported the decision to go smoke-free on campus because of the health risks associated with smoking.
Tobacco use, for example, has long been a factor in the development of heart disease, lung disease and cancer, including of the esophagus, pancreas and stomach, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cigarette smoking also causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States.
Secondhand smoke, which was as much of a concern as smoking when the policy was created according to Lena Matthias, Smoke-Free Environment project coordinator and tobacco specialist, is almost equally as harmful as firsthand smoking, the CDC has reported. Consequences of secondhand smoke range from inducing lung cancer even among nonsmokers, to increased risk for asthma attacks and adverse effects on the cardiovascular system.
In a statement released prior to the policy’s introduction, Coleman voiced a similar sentiment, stating it was put in place to improve campus-wide health and reduce risks of secondhand smoke.
The University also isn’t alone in promulgating policies like this, and according to Matthias, the University's policies are often mimicked and built upon by other universities who want to adopt similar regulations.
As of Oct. 1, 2016, there were 1,427 smoke-free campuses nationwide, of which around two-thirds were completely tobacco-free, according to the National Tobacco Free College Campus Initiative, in part sponsored by the University of Michigan and its Board of Regents. Tobacco-free includes vaporizers and other forms of tobacco.
“U of M was one of the first major institutions to go smoke-free back in 2011, so we get a lot of calls and inquiries on how we did that,” Matthias said. “For a while we served as a model to help others with their endeavors to go smoke-free.”
Following the smoke-free decision, the University also made available a variety of resources for students and faculty on smoking reduction and cessation, including the MHealthy Tobacco Consultation Service program, which are still available today.
Matthias said the policy was not implemented as a negative measure, aiming to punish those smoking on campus, but rather was intended to create a shift in mentality.
“(Administrators) decided they wanted to do it as more of a cultural shift and behavior change-type initiative rather than a punitive one,” Matthias said. “Through input gathered from students, faculty, staff, they decided it would become more of a voluntary-type enforcement.”
Because of this, legal repercussions from the University or the Department of Public Safety and Security were not part of the policy. However, students or faculty could face minor consequences via the University Standard Practice Guidelines, such as a discussion with a member of the residence staff following multiple offenses.
Matthias said following the policy’s implementation, a decrease in smoking and cigarette butt litter around campus was noticeable.
Corroborating Matthias’ sentiments, a follow-up survey conducted in November 2012 — just over one year after the introduction of the Smoke-Free Campus initiative — found more than 28 percent of faculty and staff reported cutting down on smoking due to the policy. Seventy two percent of the same demographic reported noticing either a slight or significant decrease of smoking on campus in the year following its implementation.
Data from the University of Michigan Monitoring the Future survey has also found a decline in smoking habits among all college-age individuals. According to the survey, smoking has been steadily decreasing since 2004, and recently dropped to 17 percent in 2015 from its recent peak of 31 percent in 1998 among the college-age group.
Lloyd Johnston, principal investigator of this survey and senior research scientist at the Institute for Social Research, said in a September interview that these statistics are indicative that the noticeable decrease in smoking on campus could be due not only to the 2011 policies, but also an overall cultural and generational shift toward less tobacco smoking and the use of some other drugs.
However, Matthias acknowledged that even among the overall declines in smoking, there have been some issues with repeat offenders or visitors who are unaware of the policy.
“We still have people who don’t comply,” Matthias said. “Probably our biggest issue is when we don’t know who somebody is, we can’t really approach them and talk to them about it.”
Skirting the law
When walking toward the center of campus from South University Avenue, a bench sits in a small inset near Hatcher Library, another smoke-free part of campus. But passersby would probably never know this area was designated smoke-free, as piles of cigarette butts can often be observed underneath the bench.
On colder mornings on Maynard Street, people can often be observed drinking their coffee and smoke a cigarette, despite the fact that this, too, is a part of the prohibited smoking areas designated in the Smoke-Free University Initiative.
Psychology graduate student Joseph Calabrisotto works as a student ambassador for the Smoke-Free Ambassador program — UHS’s student-run initiative to inform students about the policy. As an ambassador, he hands out smoking cessation literature and smoke-free kits to students he sees engaging in the behavior on campus.
Calabrisotto said, much like Matthias, he has encountered some students who either simply did not know of the policy or did not realize it would be enforced; however, he has also had some negative responses to his efforts.
“There are the few people that say, ‘No, until you say the police are going to come arrest me for smoking, I’m going to smoke,’ ” he said, adding that these reactions reinforce the need for the program and policies.
Walrath said she does not feel it is inappropriate for student ambassadors to approach those who are smoking, but does feel there has to be a mutual respect with both parties involved and open, mature discussion about it.
“I feel people are in their right to criticize, but have to respect the choices other people make,” Walrath said. “It’s not their ability to say someone shouldn’t choose to do something with their life, but they are free to comment on it.”
Though the ambassadors typically only approach students and do not remind faculty members of the policy, Calabrisotto said he has noted an interesting trend in faculty smoking.
“It’s typically not the ‘faculty’ faculty who are smoking; it is actually staff members that are smoking for their 15-minute breaks, where if they go walk five or 10 minutes down the street to get off campus, their break is already over, so that’s their justification,” Calabrisotto said.
Earlier this year, the city of Ann Arbor introduced their own measure to disincentivize smoking, raising the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21, a decision which could result in legal repercussions for those under 21 found purchasing these products.
However, Walrath said she thinks even this law might not have much merit, comparing a minor fine given to those smoking cigarettes on campus to legal actions taken with regard to a marijuana offense. Because marijuana is decriminalized in Ann Arbor, the Ann Arbor Police Department only fines first-time offenders.
Walrath said because she does not believe the fines given for a marijuana offense are effective, she does not think using the same tactic for cigarettes would deter the behavior either.
Likewise, Calabrisotto said he was not sure if police enforcement-based policies could be more effective than the non-punitive policies in place at the University, as an effort to resolve gray areas still remaining with the policy.
“I also don’t feel like it could be right to penalize students with a misdemeanor crime for something such as smoking on campus,” Calabrisotto said. “But at the same time, there are some students who just won’t listen. So it’s going to have to be a hard balance … I definitely think before criminal enforcement should come potentially more severe University sanctions.”
Along with enforcement, students have also run into another gray area in the past year — whether devices like e-cigarettes are included in the policy.
Matthias said there is still some ambiguity regarding whether the University will expand its policy to be completely tobacco-free — much like some universities have — to include new methods of smoking tobacco like vaporizing.
Calabrisotto said he wasn’t sure if e-cigarettes should be held to the same standards as traditional cigarettes, due to a lack of scientific consensus about the health risks of vaping.
Vaping can lead to lung inflammation and exposure to harmful chemicals, though risks are dependent on how much tobacco is in each individual e-cigarette.
For Walrath, however, the clarify all the gray areas were simpler — continuing the status quo.
“I don’t think it’s worth the social cost,” she said of enforcing this policy. “People smoke here all the time.”