Change obvious at tobacco-free WSUV

Campus-wide conversation began with a single student's suggestion

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

More colleges embracing smoke-free policies

With its new policy, Washington State University Vancouver joins about a dozen other colleges and universities in the state with 100 percent tobacco-free campuses, according to the American Lung Association. In 2006, Clark College became the state’s first tobacco-free college campus.

The national Tobacco-free College Campus Initiative — a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the University of Michigan and the American College Health Association — reports an increasing number of colleges implementing tobacco- or smoke-free policies.

When the initiative launched in September 2012, tobacco- or smoke-free policies were in place at 774 college and university campuses. By July 2013, more than 1,150 campuses had implemented such policies.

— Marissa Harshman

What do you think about WSUV’s new tobacco-free policy?

  • I like it. WSUV should protect people from exposure to second-hand smoke. 62%
  • I don’t like it. WSUV shouldn’t interfere with someone’s personal choice. 8%
  • The policy should only prohibit smoking, not all tobacco. 3%
  • They should at least allow smoking in designated areas. 27%

154 total votes.

The air is a little cleaner this year on the Washington State University Vancouver campus.

The fresh air is thanks to a new policy prohibiting the use of all tobacco products on the Salmon Creek campus. The new rules, which went into effect Aug. 1, apply to students, staff, faculty and guests, and prohibit the use of tobacco and nicotine-delivery products not approved for cessation.

The ban includes cigarettes, cigars, hookah, pipes, smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

The health risks associated with secondhand smoke and the role of the university in promoting health were factors for favoring a tobacco-free campus, according to university officials.

"A community, particularly an educational community, should be concerned about the health of its members," WSUV Chancellor Mel Netzhammer said. "Every community should."

While the decision was ultimately made by Netzhammer and his cabinet, the idea originally came from a student.

Not long after his July 2012 arrival at WSUV, the new chancellor received an email from a student encouraging the administration to address smoking on campus. Netzhammer took the issue to the student government group, the Associated Students of Washington State University Vancouver, and asked whether the students wanted to take on the issue. They agreed and took the lead in a campus-wide conversation on the topic.

Student Matt Wadzita and faculty member Wendi Benson drafted a student survey that garnered the most responses anyone can recall receiving from a student body poll. More than 1,000 students weighed in.

A 'no' on smoking areas

A strong majority — about 69 percent — said cigarette smoke on campus bothers them and 66 percent said they were concerned about secondhand smoke. About 65 percent of respondents thought smoking on campus needed to be addressed, with about 61 percent saying it should be permitted in designated smoking areas only.

Human resources director Randy Boose conducted a similar survey among staff and faculty. About 58 percent of respondents thought the campus should be smoke-free and 55 percent thought administration should ban all tobacco products, Boose said. Like the students, many faculty and staff members showed interest in designated smoking areas, he said.

Ultimately, Netzhammer and his cabinet decided against creating smoking areas on campus. After researching campuses with the areas, the administration concluded the cost to build and maintain covered smoking areas and the tendency for people to abandon the facilities made them impractical, Netzhammer said.

In addition, designated smoking areas wouldn't fully address secondhand smoke risks nor promote the goal of a healthier campus, officials said.

Before making a final decision, Netzhammer hosted a campus forum on the subject in December. There, faculty, students and staff advocated for and against tobacco and smoking policies.

Some people felt strongly that smoking is a legal, personal choice and the school shouldn't interfere. Some students also raised concerns about a potential slippery slope. They questioned whether the administration would next try to regulate unhealthy food and sugary beverages sold on campus, Netzhammer said.

People who supported the policies thought adults should be setting an example for high school students on campus. They also worried about secondhand smoke and cigarette butts littering the grounds, Netzhammer said.

"In some ways, the campus debate mirrored the national debate around what lengths we go to to protect peoples' health from the choices they make," he said. "It was very interesting and forced us to think about it."

So far, the students, faculty and staff appear to be following the tobacco-free policy -- even if they don't agree with it.

Wadzita, now a senior at WSUV, said the smokers who frequently lit up in high-traffic areas are no longer there. While smokers are upset with the new rules, they've been respectful, he said.

"It's very apparent that something's changed," Wadzita said.

Netzhammer inquires about the rules almost daily. So far, the administration hasn't fielded any complaints about people smoking on campus.

While all tobacco is banned, the administration isn't ticketing people for breaking the rules or fining people for smoking in their cars. Instead, the policy is focused on educating people about the rules and providing tobacco cessation resources, which are available on the university's website.

"We're hoping that this is much more of a cultural change that has a policy attached to it than a policy that needs to be enforced at all costs," Netzhammer said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com