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Small fire at UMPI sparks renewed interest in smoke-free campus

The University of Maine at Presque Isle built three gazebos in 2003 as designated smoking areas on campus. Above is the gazebo involved in a small accidental fire on Sept. 13.
Cassandra Green
The University of Maine at Presque Isle built three gazebos in 2003 as designated smoking areas on campus. Above is the gazebo involved in a small accidental fire on Sept. 13.
Posted Sept. 20, 2012, at 6:38 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 20, 2012, at 7:19 p.m.

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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A fire in a designated smoking spot on the University of Maine at Presque Isle campus last week has renewed debate regarding a smoke-free campus.

The small fire took place about 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 14 in one of the campus’ designated smoking gazebos, but was quickly brought under control by campus resident assistants and members of the Presque Isle Fire Department.

The gazebo fire, which was started accidentally by a cigarette improperly discarded in a trash can, was the first UMPI has seen since the structures were designated as smoking areas in spring 2003.

Both college campuses in Presque Isle — UMPI and Northern Maine Community College — allow smoking on campus in designated areas. UMPI also prohibits tobacco advertising and sales on campus and offers counseling and programs to help smokers quit.

UMPI student and smoker Stefanie Schillinger still wants smoking to be allowed on campus. She suggested a safer method of disposing of cigarette butts, rather than the tall hard plastic disposers or large garbage bins currently in the gazebos.

To prevent other complaints, she also proposed moving the gazebos to more secluded spots, “then smoke wouldn’t be going in people’s faces.”

Other student smokers interviewed Thursday also wanted designated smoking areas to remain. Several said it would be inconvenient to walk or drive off campus to smoke and it might make them late for classes.

But resident assistant Cooper Plaisted, who was the first on scene at the gazebo fire, feels a smoke-free environment would be a positive change for UMPI. Not only would that prevent similar fires, he said, “it would provide a safer, healthier” environment at the university. Other students who said Thursday they favored a smoke-free campus, expressed concerns about secondhand smoke and asthma.

Linda Mastro, director of health services for both UMPI and NMCC, has been a driving force behind smoke-free movements on college campuses for 20 years, as well as active in the American Cancer Society and the Great American Smokeout. Mastro is proud of the progress made so far by the two northern Maine colleges. She said both schools are well on their way to becoming smoke-free, although she admits that NMCC is a bit further behind because of a higher percentage of smokers on campus.

Based on surveys conducted during the Great American Smokeout in 2003, 59 percent of respondents at NMCC were smokers, while 51 percent felt that smoking should be more restricted on campus. At UMPI in 2007, 18 percent of survey takers were smokers, which was a decrease from a similar survey in 2003. Sixty-two percent of UMPI students also found in 2007 that since the gazebos were introduced, there had been less smoking and fewer cigarette butts discarded around the campus entrances. The surveys are the most current available.

To assist with the higher percentage of smokers at NMCC, Mastro runs educational programming that teaches how smoking hinders both trade work and eventual employment.

Mastro also focuses on programming heavily through the frigid winter weather in northern Maine, ensuring that students continue to abide by smoking regulations or consider taking the dreadful cold as an excuse to quit permanently.

“College is a time of education and transition, and I do my best to make it healthier for them by making their situation a positive change” said Mastro. “Many college students tend to pick up smoking during this transition from high school into college, with the added pressure and stress of new responsibilities.”

In 2000, a vote was conducted as part of UMPI’s hall evaluation surveys, to see how students felt about smoking on campus. This survey eliminated smoking inside the residence halls, and requested designated smoking areas to minimize secondhand smoke and safety concerns. The survey results found 73.7 percent of students in favor of a smoke-free campus, and in spring 2003 several gazebos were built around campus as designated smoking areas to respond to student desires.

In 2004, Mastro led a UMPI Smoking Committee to decide upon a smoke-free campus goal by the year 2006, although resistance from students, faculty members and management stalled its progress.

Since the University of Maine became the first smoke-free campus in the state on Jan. 1, 2012, many other universities and colleges across the state have been doing the same. University of Maine at Farmington is also smoke-free, as well as Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield. At the beginning of 2013, the University of Maine at Augusta and the University of Southern Maine will become smoke-free, meaning no use of tobacco products or non-FDA-approved nicotine products on campus.

A main concern of most universities deciding to go smoke-free is directly related to enrollment, and a fear of losing student numbers if banned. Mastro is not worried, claiming that enrollment has not shifted based on smoking changes made thus far on campus, and doubts this will have a critical impact; she actually believes an increase of student attendance on campus may occur with a smoking ban.

Mastro also is a member of the Maine Tobacco-Free College Network, which will meet on Nov. 15 in Bangor to discuss how colleges and universities around the state are doing with their efforts to curb smoking. Meanwhile, she’ll keep pushing for UMPI and NMCC to go smoke-free.

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