Smoking bans a breath of fresh air to some, infuriating to others

From Northern Illinois University

On July 1, when the campus of Northern Illinois University – and every other public college and university in the state – becomes smoke free, it will be a victory for cleaner air and healthier living … or an assault on basic civil liberties, depending upon who you listen to.

The move to a smoke free campus is in accordance with a bill signed into law last year. According to the policy adopted by NIU to comply with that law, smoking will be prohibited on all campus property, both indoors and outdoors and in university-owned vehicles. The only exception is an allowance for individuals to smoke in private vehicles, provided that they are not parked in the parking deck. The ban includes all forms of smoking, including electronic cigarettes.

website devoted to explaining NIU’s compliance with the law has been established. It includes information on smoking cessation resources available to faculty, staff and students, as well as answers to frequently asked questions.

Many people on campus are cheering the change, but few more adamantly than Regina Whitmore Shaefer , a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct faculty in the College of Health and Human Sciences. Her “day job” is serving as director of tobacco control for the American Academy of Pediatrics, where her duties include researching and creating policies like the one taking effect at campuses across the state.

As someone who earned a bachelor of science in art history from NIU in 1993 and then returned to complete her master’s degree in public health, Whitmore Shaefer is well aware of the smoking climate on campus. During her time as a student and instructor on campus, she has frequently had to navigate clouds of smoke and doorways littered with cigarette butts. The new law, which replaces the current regulation allowing smoking beyond 15 feet of doorways, will be easier to enforce, create a healthier atmosphere and be a more effective tool for changing campus culture, Whitmore Shaefer believes.

“Limited bans are ineffective,” she says flatly. “They are largely ignored and difficult to enforce. Also, students, faculty, staff and visitors who want to breathe clean are still exposed to second-hand smoke.”

Total bans are also more effective at influencing desired behaviors, she believes. “Complete bans are a way of supporting healthy choices. It is saying that we want our faculty, staff and students to be as healthy as possible.”

Whitmore Shaefer points out that this generation of students can scarcely recall a time when there were not bans on smoking in most public spaces such as stores, theatres, bars and restaurants. Evidence suggests that such measures (along with increased education about the dangers of smoking and increasingly higher taxes on tobacco) have had an impact. According to Gallup polls, the number of Americans who smoke had dropped by more than half over the last several decades – from a near peak of 43 percent in 1971 down to 20 percent in in 2013.The pollsters  found that number of cigarettes smoked per smoker has also decreased. In the mid-1970s, about two-thirds of smokers smoked a pack or more per day. By 2012, 68 percent reported smoking less than a pack a day, and only 1 percent said they smoked more than one pack.

Those who continue to smoke increasingly feel under attack by regulations like the one that takes effect July 1. That includes smokers at NIU.

Comments submitted to the task force that created the NIU policy included many from smokers who were angry. Of particular concern was an early draft of the policy which forbade smoking even in private vehicles. Such comments were so prevalent that the committee eliminated that restriction from the policy.

Many others maintained that their personal freedoms were being infringed upon. However, courts have repeatedly ruled that there is no right – constitutional or otherwise – to smoke. Among the arguments rejected by the courts have been efforts to toss out smoking bans on the grounds that those addicted to nicotine are handicapped, therefore making bans discriminatory. The courts have also sided with the right of employers to create and implement smoking restrictions on their property.

More recently, in 2011, a Missouri man’s attempt to strike down an outdoor smoking ban was thrown out. The circuit court ruled that the town in question had a rational basis to restrict smoking, namely, to preserve and protect the health, safety and welfare of the public.

Derryl Block, dean of the NIU College of Health and Human Sciences, who chaired the task force, says that she can appreciate that smokers are upset, as they bear the brunt of the new state law. However, she is hopeful that for some the cloud may have a silver lining.

“We heard from several smokers who said that this might be the thing that gets them to quit,” Block says. “If this really encourages them to reduce their smoking or quit, the short term cost to smokers could lead to long term health benefits.”

(Indeed, a 1992 memo from cigarette producer Phillip Morris found that smokers who work in places that prohibit smoking smoke 11-15 percent less than average and quit at a rate that is 84 percent higher than average.)

NIU law professor Dan Reynolds describes himself an “addicted smoker,” but recognizes the potential value of the ban.

“Among the many regrets I have collected over the decades is that I came of age when smoking was the coolest thing a kid could possibly do,” Reynolds says. “I am paying the price for that bit of social mores setting today, and I am actually happy to spare the kids coming up today from that result. Scorn and isolation are one way to deal with addiction and admittedly have some effect – particularly discouraging newcomers to the trade,” he says.

While the ban will make his own life a little more difficult, Reynolds says that he supports the ban and believes that in the long run, the benefits outweight the costs. “In my book, the public health and socialization issues should trump everything else,” he says.  “If Irish pubs can survive without the fog of cigarettes (and French outdoor cafes are heading in the same direction), I somehow think that NIU will manage quite nicely.”

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