Smoking ban leaves questions unanswered

After half a decade of debating the implementation of a campus-wide smoking ban, the Administration announced just prior to Thanksgiving break that by July 2015 Vassar would be both a smoke-free and tobacco-free campus. President Hill wrote in a campus-wide email, “The time has come…By enacting this initiative Vassar is underscoring its commitment to a healthy environment for all members of the college community.” Despite the Administration’s definitive declaration of the policy, aspects of the policy, such as the implementation process, remain somewhat unclear; administrators involved in the ban categorize this time as a transition period with new information being presented every day. Moreover, despite the College’s assertions that this ban will foster a healthier campus due to the scientific studies linking smoking and inhaling second-hand smoke to a variety of ailments, not all members of the campus share the Administration’s enthusiasm.

Although the new policy has commonly been referred to as the “smoking ban,” the stipulations of Vassar’s new policy encompass more than smoke-producing products. According to Vassar Smoke Free, a website launched by the Administration along with the all-campus email, effective July 1, 2015 the College will apply “all tobacco and smoking products, including but not limited to cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco and non-FDA-approved nicotine delivery services such as e-cigarettes.” This policy will apply to all individuals on Vassar’s campus, including vendors and visitors.

According to Smoking and Tobacco Action Research Team (START) in Spring 2013, the majority of students of Vassar do not vote. The  data shows that 5.25 percent of students smoke or use tobacco products on a daily basis.

Although smokeless e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco have not been proven to cause negative health affects in bystanders, the college’s decision to incorporate them in the ban underscore a more expansive goal for the policy. According to President Hill’s statement, “There is overwhelming evidence on the dangers and addictive nature of smoking; further, secondhand smoke affects everyone. By enacting this initiative Vassar is underscoring its commitment to a healthy environment for all members of the college community.”

Director of Health Services Dr. Irena Balawajder, who co-chairs the Smoke Free/ Tobacco Free Task Force,  believes the College hopes that this policy will  prevent students from adopting the habit of smoking or using other tobacco products. Balawajder noted that many students transition from social smokers to more addictive smokers while on Vassar’s campus. She said, “We hear a lot from students, particularly sophomores, that they started smoking when they got here…In some sense it is a public health prevention policy of trying to prevent people from becoming addicted to nicotine.”

While the decision to have a smoke free and tobacco free policy has been made in spite of student concerns, administrators have reiterated their goal at easing the transition. For example, the College will soon host cessation classes. According to Smoke Free/ Tobacco Free Task Force co-chair Sarah Bakke, “We have someone on site who went to smoking cessation trainer class, so she is able to give the classes on site to all students and employees that are interested. She is going to start the first set of classes after we get back from the holiday break and she’ll continue to due them throughtout the 18 month period until the actual July 1 date.” Currently, students will be charged $10 for the informational materials. Students who would prefer to go off-campus will be able to find classes in the local community through the Vassar Smoke Free website.

Due to its ban on e-cigarettes, Vassar’s smoking ban will also prove more expansive than smoking policies in other areas of New York. Although New York City already prohibits smoking in public areas, the New York City Council committee plans to consider a piece of legislation that would ban electronic cigarettes in restaurants, bars and other indoor public areas.

When the College unveiled its smoking ban policy, President Catharine Bond Hill and Vassar Smoke Free both indicated that Vassar is thus becoming part of a national trend. Vassar Smoke Free states, “By [adopting the ban] Vassar joins more than 1,100 other colleges and universities nationwide with similar policies.” President Hill cited the same statistic in the body of her email. While technically accurate, this statistic shows that Vassar’s decision to institute a smoking ban had different motivations and will use implementation strategies than a significant portion of the colleges counted by statistic.

The statistic Vassar Smoke Free utilizes derives from data collected by The American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (ANRF), which compiles a list of smoke-free or tobacco-free institutions of higher education. In the data provided to students, the Smoke Free Vassar program fails to acknowledge the difference between a smoke-free and a tobacco-free policy. While Vassar’s policy will be both smoke-free and tobacco-free, not all of the over 1,100 institutions President Hill referenced have similar policies. The ANRF states that, while there are 1,127 smoke-free campuses in America, only 758 are tobacco-free campuses.

Another factor when considering the statistic in relation to Vassar’s motivations for the ban is the causes of the national trend of smoke-free colleges. In some instances, colleges counted in the over 1,100 figure were subject to laws limiting the presence of smoking. Four states, through either executive order or legislative means, approved making state-owned properties smoke-free: Oklahoma, Iowa, Arkansas and Louisiana. Colleges within these states, which total roughly 150 institutions, are counted among those schools creating a smoke-free campus, in spite of the fact they were established due to external policies.

Finally, the ANRF estimation relies heavily upon policies for community colleges which rarely utilize the residential structure employed by Vassar. Most two-year colleges consist of commuting students who live off-campus, whereas almost all Vassar students both study and live within the boundaries of the ban.

Although the Administration officially published their plans for the smoking ban policy, aspects of enforcement have yet to be decided upon. According to Director of Safety and Security Don Marsala, who organizes the officers who will regulate the policy, the College remains hopeful that non-punitive means of compliance can convince community members not to smoke on campus. Marsala said in an emailed statement, “The specifics of how the penalties will change hasn’t been determined yet. We’re hoping that security will only intervene if necessary.”

Class of 2015 President Casey Hancock noted in an emailed statement that he believes that eventually the college will eventually replace this peer-based regulation with other enforcement policies. He wrote, “Eventually the College will likely implement some kind of sanction. During discussions, administrators seemed interested in a fine, despite student opposition to that.”

Similarly, students have historically voiced concerns about the potential problems with enforcing the smoking ban. In data collected by START in Spring 2013, which was also used by the Committee on College Life when it recommended a smoking ban policy to the President, 89 percent of students indicated that they believed any ban would be difficult to enforce.

Following the College’s announcement, many students have expressed their opinions on the upcoming smoking ban. Hancock explained, “The Student Body generally seems to be not in support of the policy and feel that they have not have well represented by student leaders on the issue, despite the fact that [the ban] was a top down decision made by the College long before VSA elected students voted on the issue.” The Vassar Student Association’s VP for Operations Ali Ehrlich ’15, who also serves on the Smoke Free Implementation Committee that helps plan the transition period, presented a more equitably distributed picture between positive and negative feedback. Ehrlich wrote in an emailed statement, “Student sentiment has been generally been fairly mixed.”

Students have historically been in opposition to the creation of any smoking ban. In data collected by START, 55.32 percent of students responded that they either opposed or strongly opposed to a multi-step process that results in a tobacco and smoke free campus. In an earlier poll conduct by the VSA a year earlier, 65.3 percent of surveyed students opposed a ban.

Although campus-wide polling opposed the creation of the smoking ban, the Administration maintains that this policy also partially occurred  as a byproduct of community pressure. Dean Roellke explained, “The College was strongly encouraged by the Dutchess County Department of Health to make this policy change.”

Although the smoking ban will be put into effect in July 2015, student leaders believe their constituents still have some role in the transition process. For example, the Smoke Free Implementation Committee focuses on granting students representation in the final planning and transition process. Elrich explained, “I strongly encourage students to contact myself or any other student representative on the implementation committee with their thoughts and concerns. Though the administration is unlikely to reverse their decision, it is important that we know what would make this transition the least unpleasant for all students.”

2 Comments

  1. Bout time this happened. Vassar is way, way, way behind the curve compared to other colleges when it comes to banning smoking on campus.

    It is deeply embarrassing to see students puffing away outside the library as prospective students and their parents on tours walk by.

    How can Vassar students be so dumb about smoking? They profess to care about the environment, but then they smoke.

    Believe me, Vassar students, you don’t look cool when you smoke, although that appears to be the reason some start.

    Also, my kiddies: New York City has just upped the age to 21 for anyone wishing to buy cigarettes.

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