University of Southern Maine students protest campus tobacco ban

Posted Dec. 05, 2012, at 2:36 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Some University of Southern Maine students hope a tobacco ban due to kick in next month at the school’s three campuses goes up in smoke.

A handful of students protested against the ban Wednesday at USM’s campus in Portland, following a small demonstration on Monday at the Gorham campus.

Organizer Jordana Avital, a freshman studying linguistics, said she’s dismayed that she won’t be able to smoke on the Gorham campus, where she lives in a dorm. But she also sees the tobacco ban as an infringement on students’ rights — smokers and nonsmokers alike.

“We just want kids to have a voice and stand up for what they believe in,” she said Wednesday, wearing a handmade T-shirt that read “Occupy Butt Bench.”

Avital and several other students posted signs and made “butt buckets” for cigarette disposal in a grassy area of the campus with benches often frequented by smokers. Avital said she worries that the ban will drive students off campus to light up, potentially risking their safety.

Despite student protests, tobacco bans are picking up speed on campuses across the country. USM is among more than 800 schools that have banned smoking on campus, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Schools have long prohibited smoking inside buildings, but the new bans take aim at outdoor spaces.

USM is moving ahead with the tobacco ban, which was adopted last spring and takes effect Jan. 1 at USM’s Portland, Gorham and Lewiston campuses. The new policy prohibits the use of lighted tobacco products, smokeless tobacco products such as chew and snuff, and smoking cessation products that haven’t been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug administration, including electronic cigarettes.

The ban covers all university property, including parking areas and athletic fields, and also prohibits tobacco use in personal vehicles while on campus.

“Creating a healthier environment for students, faculty, staff and visitors is the reason behind it,” said USM spokeswoman Judie O’Malley. “We’re committed to stopping the use of tobacco.”

About 15 percent of college students smoked cigarettes in 2011, a drop from 31 percent in 1999, according to estimates in the latest Monitoring the Future drug and alcohol survey.

For the last decade, smoking has been allowed in designated outdoor areas of USM’s campuses, a policy that school officials said was ineffective.

USM administrators are still working out the details of enforcing of the ban, including what discipline violators will face, O’Malley said. Enforcement will begin in September after a transitional phase, she said.

Nationally, some schools have issued fines, while others have set up disciplinary boards.

O’Malley said she expects that the public will come to accept the ban, just as society did after smoking was banned in restaurants and bars in recent years.

“Eventually the culture will change,” she said. “If you work in a public school you can’t smoke on the grounds anymore. There’s no teachers’ smoking lounge.”

The new policy isn’t about making tobacco users quit, but rather eliminating people’s exposure to tobacco on university grounds, USM officials said.

The University of Maine at Orono and Farmington have already banned tobacco use on campus. The University of Maine at Augusta is on the same track as USM, enacting a ban in January and allowing a grace period until next September, O’Malley said.

The University of Maine at Fort Kent and Presque Isle are in the process of formulating tobacco bans and the Machias campus plans to announce one soon, she said.

“Within a few years, every campus in the system will be smoke-free,” O’Malley said.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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