Tobacco Ban Discussed

By Philip Bohlman

A discussion on the lack of enforcement of current smoking rules and the possibility of a future tobacco ban is catching the attention of the College community. 

The discussion began in November when the SGA Senate passed resolution F2014-SB12, the 2nd Hand Smoke Prevention Initiative, co-sponsored by Senators Michael Brady ’17.5 and Aaron de Toledo ’16. The bill states: “Be it resolved that the Community Council should address the issue of tobacco smoking on campus and discuss possible methods of enforcement of current policy.” Because rules around smoking affect not only students, but also faculty and staff members, responsibility for such an issue lies with Community Council, not the SGA.

The College faces increased pressure to find consensus on the issue due to national trends.What is normally a ubiquitous public health issue has evolved into a question of personal freedoms and feasibility for many institutions. Today, 1,514 campuses in the United States are smoke-free, up from 586 in 2011, and 1,014 are tobacco-free, according to a January 2015 report from the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights.

“Over a thousand campuses have already done this. Are we late to the game? Is this something where we dropped the ball?” Brady said.

In finding motivation to draft the resolution, Brady pointed to complaints he had received from constituents about smoking, an observed lack of enforcement of the current rule: “Smoking shall not take place within 25 feet of areas where smoke is likely to enter buildings,” and personal experience with his recently deceased grandfather, who suffered from lung cancer. 

“I actually spoke with an officer from Public Safety and questioned him on this policy on smoking and he did not know it,” Brady said.

The bill suggested some possible methods of enforcement, including the relocation of cigarette butt disposal units from entrances and extending the current $50 fine for smoking indoors to include violations of the 25 feet rule. 

The bill not only calls for Community Council to take up the issue of enforcement, but also invites them to discuss the possibility of a tobacco ban. In the short term, they will focus on the former.

“Looking at our current practices, we’ve let some parts of that policy slide. Instead of designing a new policy, I think we’re going to move towards actually implementing our current one,” said Ben Bogin ’15, Student Co-Chair of Community Council, in an email to the Campus

He added: “We’ve recommended that faculty, student and staff members form a task force next year to look at the issue [of banning smoking]. I expect it will involve talking with [President Elect Laurie L. Patton] and a wide range of community members. Personally, I’m not sure that we will end up banning smoking in the end, but I think it’s important to engage the issue.”

Brady echoed Bogin’s reservations. “I’m not sure I fully support it, but I think it’s interesting for that to be part of the conversation. Because it hurts other people, I felt that I needed to include that clause just to have it at least be a part of the conversation,” he said.

Medical Director and College Physician Dr. Mark Peluso expressed support for such a measure. 

“I would be in favor of a smoking ban with certain conditions. That it was done over time, that it provided an opportunity for people who currently smoke to engage the quitting process, and that it was enforceable,” Peluso said. 

Parton Center for Health and Wellness is not equipped to facilitate smoking cessation with specialized services, but the nearby Porter Hospital hosts the VT Quits program, which offers in-person counseling.

Peluso also suggested looking at smoking policy through the lens of cost-cutting. An inquiry into the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses in the employee-funded Health and Welfare Benefits Plan, where premiums paid directly subsidize medical costs, could help quantify the cost borne by faculty and staff.

“If we assume that Middlebury is following the same trends as the general adult population in New England most of our tobacco users are going to be faculty and staff,” said Barbara McCall, director of Health and Wellness Education. 

The tension between the prevailing notion that smoking tobacco is rare at the College, but that secondhand smoke poses a health risk beyond that niche, would require a nuanced solution.

McCall suggested looking to other colleges, like the smoke and tobacco-free University of Maine system, as resources to guide in successful policy change. 

“This isn’t a split-second decision you make and implement the next day. Most schools do a three- to five-year plan and there are phases of implementation,” McCall said, “Typically plans start with a review of the current policy and work on strengthening that as a means to start restricting smoke and tobacco on campus in various forms, ultimately with the goal of eliminating it from campus altogether.” 

The downsides of a tobacco ban go beyond restricting individual liberties, as it would affect the staffing of the College’s Language Schools as well. Some language school professors, who can come from countries and cultures with different norms regarding tobacco, have threatened to not return to teach if such a policy was in place, according to Brady.

“For something that seems like an instinctual decision – ‘that’s a public health issue, we should just do that’ – it really takes a lot of time and coordination. I think we have the opportunity to do things when it’s the right time for our campus and in a way that makes everyone feel comfortable and included,” McCall said. 

Ishan Guha ’17 is skeptical of stricter enforcement of the current 25 feet rule.

“I think that would be unnecessary for a few reasons. Firstly I don’t think people are smoking particularly close to entryways and two I think that it would be unnecessary policing,” Guha said. 

When asked about a tobacco ban, he said: “I think smoking is a choice and you’re restricting free will. If people want to smoke they should be able to smoke, especially if you’re going to ban them from smoking outside on a campus.” 

On the effects of secondhand smoke, he said: “That is a concern, but again I think we’d have to actually examine some statistics to see what the full effects would be before we make a decision.”

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