By WESLEY ROBINSON
Eastern will be a tobacco-free campus beginning in June of next year, President Michael Benson announced last week. The move would add Eastern to a list of nearly 1,200 schools nationwide that have banned tobacco or smoking on their campuses, according to an American Nonsmoker’s Rights Foundation study published in July.
“I was really surprised by how many people that felt as strong about it as they did,” Benson said. “People wanted to make campus healthier, cleaner and more inviting.”
Benson said health risks are the main reason the university is making the change. Nearly 50,000 deaths among adults are linked to second hand smoke exposure, according a fact sheet by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The same CDC data found that tobacco use is the leading cause of avoidable death in the U.S., contributing to 443,000 lost lives each year. The Kentucky Department for Health and Family Services found that tobacco use the leading cause of preventable death in the state.
“There are so many things in life we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is what we take into our bodies,” Benson said. “This is empowering people to make their own choices, to work and study in an environment that’s healthy.”
Benson said as of 2012, the university dedicated nearly $900,000 to preventable health conditions associated with tobacco use in employee insurance plans. He said that even though there are financial benefits to making the policy change, the university’s goal is to create a healthy campus environment.
“I know this is not one of those decisions that will completely be without controversy but this is the right thing to do and I’m willing to have it happen under my short tenure so far,” Benson said.
Renee Fox, co-chair of the presidential task force investigating the tobacco ban, said her group is developing plans for the ban that should be completed by the end of October. She said several members of the task force were on the committee that developed the current tobacco policy, which has been in place since July 1, 2006.
Fox said support has been growing for a tobacco-free campus since the previous committee began surveying students, faculty and staff. The most recent survey from 2012 found that 63 percent of people surveyed had positive feelings toward Eastern adopting a tobacco-free policy. Half the people surveyed also said the current policy, which allows for smoking 25 feet away from building entrances and walkways, is not effective in reducing exposure to secondhand smoke.
“People do not currently follow the policy that we have,” Fox said. “We’ve learned the policy that we have is not effective because there’s still a great amount of second hand smoke on campus.”
Fox, who is the health benefits and wellness coordinator with the university, said the change would create a better environment for people with asthma or smoke allergies. She added that there will be almost instant benefits to quitting smoking, and long term benefits such as better lung capacity, improved blood circulation and a lower risk of heart attack, heart disease and cancer.
“It’s just neat to know there are immediate benefits that you get, and with removing second hand smoke, we have healthier air for everyone,” Fox said.
Fox said that the university will offer smoking cessation options for people who wish to quit, including the free Cooper-Clayton and nicotine replacement therapy, Fox said. She added that the university will provide these services as long as there is a need.
“We’re not telling people that they cannot use tobacco, it’s just the effort here is to create a safe and healthy work and learning environment for all people,” Fox said.
Benson said the new policy isn’t targeting smokers or trying to make people quit smoking. Referencing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bans on soft drinks and king sized candy bars, Benson said the university would not take the policy too far.
“This is not about infringing on people’s right to do what they want to do with their own health and bodies,” Benson said. We’re limiting what people can do on campus. We don’t want people doing things that affect [other people’s health negatively] on campus. Not to be glib, but we aren’t taking away diet sodas.”
Brian Kinker, 23, a psychology major from Landstuhl, Germany, said he does not support the ban, but agrees that it helps non-smokers. He said people would probably violate the policy and doesn’t think there is a way to control people smoking.
“It’s my decision to smoke and I’m responsible for what I put in my own body,” Kinker said.
“I do like the programs to help people stop smoking but then again it’s our own choice to go to the programs.”
While on a tour of Eastern, Megan Duff, 18, from Harlan County, said she was not pleased with the new policy and questioned why there wouldn’t be any designated areas for smoking on campus.
“I still plan on coming [to Eastern] but I’m definetly going to try and sneak a smoke on campus,” Duff said. “When I come here next fall, [the tobacco ban] will not influence me to quit.”
Fox said the task force is working the University of Kentucky to make a seamless transition from the current policy to a tobacco-free campus. UK implemented its smoking policy in 2009 and Fox said it’s helpful to have help from a university that has already made the change. Fox also said the task force has divided into subgroups to address some issues of the new policy, including its language, enforcement and communications, but will still continue to receive feedback from the university community.
“We definitely are going to be soliciting feedback from faculty, staff and students and getting input for how to overcome barriers and make this a smooth transition,” Fox said.
Benson said a key part of enforcement will be getting people to be respectful of each other’s rights, but he said that he is confident the Eastern community will meet the challenge.
“I know we can put together a policy that will work,” Benson said. “There’s no reason not to say we can’t do it. We’re part of a big Eastern Kentucky family. We’ve addressed problems before and I know we can do it.
News Editor Kasey Tyring contributed to this news story.