In order to address the nation’s smoking epidemic, it’s essential to end tobacco use among young people. About 99 percent of adults who smoke every day started when they were 26 or younger, according to the surgeon general ’s 2012 report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For the benefit of smokers and people breathing in secondhand smoke, each community college and campus belonging to the University of Maine System should ban tobacco use. Eliminating smoking does not mean setting up designated smoking spots. It means completely prohibiting tobacco use and instituting punishments for violations.
A recent fire at a designated smoking gazebo at the University of Maine at Presque Isle was quickly contained. But it sparked debate about having a smoke-free campus. Some people argue that eliminating designated smoking areas would create inconveniences, as students would have to drive or walk off campus to smoke.
But when a majority of people say on campus surveys that they want their colleges to be smoke-free, and it’s clearly healthier for them to be smoke-free, actually making them smoke-free should be a natural step. Inconveniencing students is unfortunate, but it’s much more important for the campuses to show they are serious about fighting tobacco use.
Many campuses have already done laudable work to become smoke-free. The University of Maine, the University of Maine at Farmington and Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield all ban smoking. The University of Maine at Augusta and the University of Southern Maine are scheduled to become smoke-free at the start of 2013.
The University of Maine at Presque Isle and Northern Maine Community College allow smoking at designated spots. However other colleges have found that banning tobacco altogether is more effective than having the specified smoking areas.
Youth smoking in the U.S. fell quickly from 1997 to 2004, and since then it has tapered slowly, from 24.4 percent in 2003 to 18.7 percent in 2010. Prevalence has fallen among adults, from 21.6 percent in 2003 to 19.3 percent in 2010, according to the surgeon general ’s report. The problem is not that programs or efforts haven’t worked but that they haven’t been applied broadly or consistently.
This is an opportunity for UMPI and other schools to join the wider effort. They can show that they understand the tremendous public health and financial costs tobacco has on Maine and the nation.
Some people argue that smoking is a personal choice and that students are not paying tuition to be told what to do. But — aside from the fact that students may still smoke off campus — many people are affected by students’ decisions to smoke. Taxpayers subsidize their education and may end up paying for their future health care.
Schools also have an obligation to provide a safe environment for all students. Of every three young smokers, one will quit and one will die from tobacco-related causes, according to the CDC. Many people do not consider long-term effects when they start smoking, but it is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Schools educate students in health-related classes about these dangers, and it makes sense for them to follow what they teach.
For a ban to be effective, schools should take a holistic approach. That’s why it’s important for campuses to not only create an environment where it’s harder for people to smoke but also ensure cessation-support services are available and affordable. The approach also should include getting rid of smoking entirely, not relying on designated smoking gazebos.