Clouds of smoke lead to community conversation on tobacco use


Isaac Mathison-Bowie ’15 smoking outside of the campus center. Many students are divided over the prospect of Macalester’s campus going smoke-free. Photo by Will Matsuda ’15

Isaac Mathison-Bowie ’15 smoking outside of the campus center. Many students are divided over the prospect of Macalester’s campus going smoke-free. Photo by Will Matsuda ’15
Isaac Mathison-Bowie ’15 smoking outside of the campus center. Many students are divided over the prospect of Macalester’s campus going smoke-free. Photo by Will Matsuda ’15

James Meyerson ’16 was drawn to Macalester because of its progressive reputation, but he finds one aspect of the school disappointingly old-fashioned: smoking. The “clouds of cigarette smoke” he sees on a daily basis have him calling for campus action to begin a dialogue on the school’s smoking policy.

“I think Macalester should do something to match [recent anti-smoking legislation],” Meyerson said. “Walking through a cloud of smoke on my way to breakfast is not what I’m paying $50,000 for.”

Revamping the campus’ smoking policy is not a new debate at the college. In February 2010, Laurie Hamre, Vice President of Student Affairs, formed the Tobacco-Free Environment Task Force committee to look at the rights of non-smokers. This committee was chaired by Lisa Broek, the Associate Director of Health Promotion, and Denise Ward, Director of the Health and Wellness Center.

“For many years, we had a no smoking in buildings policy, which was state law,” Hamre said. “We hadn’t really thought about smoking on campus, but we were getting more complaints from faculty, students and staff.”

In response to the growing concern, the committee conducted a campus survey.

“We had a number of faculty, students and staff that were saying, ‘Please, get rid of smoking. It offends me. It’s hard on me, and I have no desire to see it or to walk through smoke,’” Hamre said. “Then we had a group in the middle that was saying, ‘The college doesn’t really have the right to tell people what they can and can’t do.’ Then there was even a smaller group that said, ‘No. I want to smoke, or people have the right to smoke.’”

After looking at the results of their survey, the task force recommended that smoking be restricted within 25 feet of doors, windows or ventilation systems. These changes were implemented at the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic year. It was seen as a compromise at the time, although according to Ward, the committee was prepared to look into a completely smoke-free campus policy at a later time.

“It’s a topic that’s getting more and more attention nationally,” Ward said. “With the college’s goal of being carbon neutral, it begins to fit in in multiple places here on campus.”

If Macalester were to implement a completely smoke-free policy, it would not be the first Minnesota school to do so. Nearby schools such as St. Catherine University and Bethel University already have such policies in place. A recent report by the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation stated that there are now at least 1,159 college campuses with a 100% smoke-free policy.

While Macalester’s campus policy appears to be moving in that direction, critics counter that a campus-wide ban on smoking would not solve central problems.

Michael Kreher ’16 said that a smoke-free campus is an idealistic goal.

“Obviously, it’s something we want to attain because it’s healthy,” he said. “At the same time, people are going to smoke no matter what, so why make them go off campus to smoke?”

Kreher pointed to a lack of enforcement as another barrier for a full-out campus ban.

“I’ve noticed that the 25-foot policy is rarely enforced,” he said. “I’ve seen people smoking outside of doors all of the time. If anything about the smoking policy at school gets changed it should just be that they actually enforce the policy that’s already in place.”

Hamre said that she has seen more problems in disobedience towards the smoking rule this year than in previous years.

“We knew there would be a problem with enforcement,” she said. “We don’t have tobacco police. We had hoped that members of the community would police themselves.”

Ward recommended students having problems with another community member’s violation of these rules should either talk directly to the community member or mention the problem to their Residence Hall Director or the Dean of Students office.

According to Hamre, enforcement is reliant on good citizenship.

“We were kind of hoping that if we gave folks enough information and encouraged students to think about others instead of themselves that it might not need a lot of enforcement,” she said. “I think this year has shown that not all smokers are polite smokers.”

Meyerson mentioned Bateman Plaza, the exterior of the Campus Center and the north entrance of Humanities as locations where the proliferation of smoke is bothersome.

“Especially in the winter, people smoke right outside the door,” Meyerson said. “There have been times where it’s basically been impossible not to walk through smoke on my way to class or breakfast.”

Cindy Haarstad, Director of the Campus Center, said that she has employees that smoke in the loading dock area behind the CC. She said that from her observation, the smoking policy is typically followed, although not always.

“Sometimes my role is to simply remind people about [the rule] because they may be right next to the door,” she said. “I’m a non-smoker, so I appreciate not having to deal with the smoke, but I also think people have the right to smoke if they want.”

While Meyerson would prefer a smoke-free campus policy, he said that the creation of designated smoking areas on campus could be a compromise between smokers and non-smokers. Meyerson suggested the sidewalk between the Campus Center and Kirk and the pathway between Olin-Rice and the Leonard Center as feasible smoking zones, away from the high-traffic sidewalk stretch from the CC to the library onward to the LC and Olin-Rice.

To help people delineate between smoking and non-smoking areas, Kreher suggested posting more signs.

“I think the 25 foot policy is good and that possibly it could be lengthened to 50 feet because there are people that are bothered by smoke,” he said.

Although the problem of secondhand smoke may be receiving the bulk of the attention, Hamre expressed equal concern over cigarette butt litter around campus. Facilities is currently responsible for cleanup, and Hamre said she worries that a campus ban would spread this litter to the surrounding neighborhood, creating tension.

“While walking on campus, I see way too many cigarette butts on the ground,” said Building Maintenance Manager Mike Hall, a member of the 2010 task force committee. “As a non-smoker, I am offended by the thoughtless littering.”

Aside from the potential policy changes on smoking, Hamre said education and support are important.

“All we can do is continue to offer programs that help students who want to quit and do awareness on the consequences of smoking,” she said.

The Health and Wellness Center offers many services for students looking to quit, including reduced-cost nicotine patches. Julie Lucking, the MAX Center Department Coordinator, is trained in smoking sensation as a support person. Meyerson sees these programs as beneficial to all community members.

“[This] would be a way of caring for community members with an addiction, while simultaneously helping those who, at the moment, are harmed by their secondhand smoke,” he said.

Despite these programs, the campus health officials including Ward, Broek and Medical Director Dr. Stephanie Walters are pushing for the smoking ban.

“From a health perspective, smoking is a problem,” Ward said. “In general this is a healthy campus. Our students on a lot of measures are more healthy than those at peer schools. [Smoking] is kind of an incongruent behavior that the students engage in.”

“There are people that walk through smoke that really do have health issues that are impacted by it,” Broek said. “In general, I feel that the mission of the college would support a healthy place to learn and work in smoke-free environment.”

Broek said that a smoke-free campus benefits the health of all community members.

“I personally think 20 years from now it will seem silly from a national public health perspective to be talking about not being smoke-free,” she said.

While smoking may be a hot-button issue at Macalester now, surveys by the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) show that the past decade has marked a sharp decline in the number of smokers on campus. Macalester participates in the biennial NCHA survey, in which students anonymously answer questions regarding their daily and 30-day prevalence of cigarette use. According to Broek, there is generally a 35 to 48 percent response rate to the survey.

In 2005, the percentage of Macalester students responding ‘yes’ to cigarette use in the 30 days prior to taking the survey was 29 percent in comparison to a 21 percent national average. Since then, Macalester’s rate has dropped 12 percentage points, while continuing to exceed the national average. The most recent data, collected from 2011, reported that 17 percent of Macalester students smoked at least one cigarette within the 30-day period, while 15 percent responded ‘yes’ nationally. Macalester’s 2013 data set is expected to be released by this summer.

Broek said she sees a connection between changes in campus policy and the reported decline in cigarette use. Macalester implemented a tobacco-free policy in June 1994 in accordance with the Minnesota Clean Indoor Act. This prohibited smoking in the library, Campus Center, all classroom buildings, office areas and all public spaces within residence halls. Then in Fall 2008, the campus officially banned smoking in all residence hall rooms.

Ward agreed with Broek. She said that a smoke-free protocol would reduce the number of smokers on campus in the long term.

“I think there will eventually be a mandate for all colleges and universities to be smoke-free,” Ward said. “I quite frankly would like to be ahead of that and have Macalester decide how it wants to manage it for itself before we’re told to do it.”

Although the health officials appear to be in consensus, some students have expressed concerns over a policy change.

“I am opposed to Macalester being a smoke-free campus,” said MCSG representative Samuel Doten ’16. “I think students, visitors, staff, and faculty should have the liberty to smoke on campus, provided that they are respectful of others. Additionally, enforcement of a smoking ban would be difficult to implement, cause tension and could result in unnecessary guilt-tripping of campus smokers.”

While casual conversations have discussed changing the smoking policy, Hamre said that no formal conversations have begun. She said that when these discussions do begin, she hopes the community will become involved.

“Macalester is a community-input place,” she said. “We would need to have several months to talk with the community, to receive feedback and do education. I wouldn’t see us making a policy without having some conversation in the community.”

Ward agreed that a community conversation on the issue will be important.

“I’d really love for it to have more of a student base,” she said. “It obviously impacts everyone on campus and there are multiple constituencies’ interests to be considered.”

According to Doten, the steps for making Macalester smoke-free would begin with the SSRC (Student Services and Relations Committee) sending out a survey to the student body, staff and faculty. Then if there was a strong response, the issue would be taken up within MCSG and a proposal could be recommended and/or introduced as a resolution to the Legislative Body, which would elicit further feedback from the administration prior to a rule change becoming effective.

Doten, who identifies as an occasional smoker, said that he would not support nor introduce such a smoke-free policy measure.

“I do not find new rules necessary when there could be better enforcement and awareness of the existing 25 foot policy,” he said. “We do not know the effects on nor the opinion of staff and faculty who smoke […] and I believe students should have the liberty to smoke so long as it does not impose burdens or hazards on other students.”

According to Meyerson, allowing students too much freedom to smoke can have negative implications for Macalester’s image.

“If a [prospective freshman’s] first exposure to Macalester is walking out the CC doors into a cloud of smoke, what does that say about the progressive atmosphere here?” Meyerson said. “From my eyes, it doesn’t put us in a good light.”

Kreher meanwhile called for respect of both non-smokers and smokers.

“I think if you’re trying to be considerate of people that don’t smoke you also have to be considerate of people that do,” he said. “They’re both personal choices. One of them might be less wise than the other, but that’s [a] personal opinion.”

Meyerson and Kreher agreed that a serious community dialogue on the issue will be crucial in making a fair policy decision. “You can look at KWOC or Divest from Fossil Fuels, things that weren’t issues before that were made issues by students,” Meyerson said. “Maybe this is another issue that needs to be taken up. … I think it’s definitely something that could be brought up in next year’s decision-making bodies.”