Ifs, Ands and Butts

After a wave of colleges banned smoking, some officials feel pressure to make exceptions, and still grapple with enforcement.
January 12, 2010

Blame it on the rock stars.

A semester after instituting a campus-wide smoking ban, Boise State University is backtracking. Under an unpublicized exemption approved by officials last month, the university will allow smoking in designated areas at its Taco Bell Arena. It’s simply impractical to have to tell the likes of George Strait that he can’t have a cigar on stage, much less usher his roadies to the edges of campus for a smoke break, arena officials say.

“Certainly if we were to send security on stage to prevent an artist from smoking [we're not] going to be in business any longer,” said Ron Janeczko, associate director of the arena.

The smoking ban also wasn’t practical for audience members, Janeczko added. Since the arena doesn’t allow re-admittance, smokers couldn’t leave the venue for a cigarette and return later, he said.

In addition to the arena, Boise State will allow for designated smoking areas at its football stadium and the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts.

The added exemptions at Boise State highlight the difficulties colleges across the country have had maintaining all-out bans and ensuring absolute compliance. While a number of college officials say the bans are mostly honored, they concede that some students continue to flout the rule on the fringes of campus and that enforcement is simply impossible on game days that draw thousands of visitors who are either ignorant of the policies or just don’t feel compelled to follow them. That’s not to say, however, that health officials think the bans lack merit.

“Overwhelmingly we think the policy has been great,” said Jennifer Summers, health educator at Boise State.

A wave of smoking bans took hold on college campuses last year, and now at least 381 institutions have all-out prohibitions or significant restrictions, according to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a national lobbying group that pursues legislative restrictions on tobacco use. It’s of little surprise that colleges haven’t seen absolute compliance in the first years of their bans, and the policies are likely to garner more support over time, according to Liz Williams, project manager of Americans for Nonsmokers Rights

“It definitely becomes part of the culture, and self-enforcement and self-compliance is a major part of any smoke-free law, especially on campus,” she said.

But colleges are wrestling with how to handle that small percentage of students, faculty and staff who may not abide by the policy. At Grand Rapids Community College, a fine system has been put in place for enforcement. Violators are given two warnings, and on the third offense they are made to pay $15. Fines increase to $30 thereafter.

Grand Rapids instituted fines in September, a year after the smoking ban was established. Since that time, campus police have issued just eight warnings about the policy and have not fined anyone for a third offense, according to Sara Dorer, associate director of student conduct.

While Grand Rapids students have largely complied with the ban, area businesses have complained about the flood of students leaving the campus to smoke outside storefronts. Those complaints have triggered further discussion about creating designated smoking areas at the college, something supporters of an all-out ban are concerned about.

“It would [disappoint] me personally,” Dorer said. “Can we truly call ourselves tobacco-free if we have a designated smoking area? In a sense it feels like a step back. We’ve made some significant improvements. I’d hate to see us step back.”

For some institutions, continuing to allow smoking is no longer an option. Such is the case in Iowa, where lawmakers passed legislation in spring of 2008 that forbids smoking in almost all public places. Violators of the policy, who can be reported to campus police or the State Department of Health, face fines of $50.

Kathy Green, director of university health services at the University of Northern Iowa, said campus police have only issued a handful of citations since the ban was implemented. Students largely comply with the ban, although the law is occasionally broken by visitors who show up for football games, she said.

“I’m sure we don’t have 100 percent compliance there, and the police aren’t running around trying to grab everyone who has a cigarette,” Green said. “Whatever is accomplished by peer pressure is probably all that happens on those [game] days.”


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