Smoke and Mirrors

January 18, 2011

Over the past few years, as the movement to turn campuses smoke- and tobacco-free gained momentum, many onlookers and health experts have asked: Is this the real thing? How enforceable, in 24/7, bacchanalian college life, are smoking bans?

Completely so, according to the Bacchus Network, a nonprofit health education organization. Bacchus is offering a new accreditation program that promises to put an end to the doubts about which campuses have kicked the habit by offering, for a fee, to certify universities tobacco- and smoke-free.

Colleges can be certified diamond, gold, or silver, depending on the lengths they go in order to rid their campuses and their investment portfolios of a relationship to tobacco. A diamond-rated university, for example, does not accept funding from tobacco companies or invest in them, and tobacco use is banned campuswide. The lower ratings drop the investment requirement and take a more lenient stance on campus tobacco use. A silver rating is roughly equivalent to a smoke-free campus, or one banning the use of cigarettes, cigars and other smoke-producing products. Gold and diamond indicate tobacco-free, meaning no snuff, chewing tobacco or other smokeless tobacco products. A complete table breakdown of the different gradings can be viewed here.

Bacchus may seem an unusual organization to focus on whether colleges have any financial ties to the tobacco industry. Bacchus's many efforts related to alcohol abuse have involved board members and financial support from Anheuser-Busch. Bacchus’s director of education and training, Ann Quinn-Zobeck, thinks there is no comparison to be made between the two industries. "Alcohol can be used in a responsible manner and not have an impact on health," she says.

Last year Bacchus offered the tobacco certification service and, after five colleges paid the $295 application fee, awarded two colleges -- Winona State University and Oklahoma State University -- silver and gold certificates, respectively. Bacchus says this year’s program, which is taking applications now, will draw even more interest.

The program is meant to combat the problem of colleges failing to make good on their tobacco policies. "Some campuses might say that they’re tobacco-free, but they have a designated smoking area outside their athletic facilities," says Quinn-Zobeck.

In fact, Bacchus is getting some flak at Oklahoma State. In a column published Tuesday, Jonathan Sutton, a student, said the certified policy is "rarely enforced." Sutton says it is common to see students smoking in low-traffic areas, and that smokeless tobacco products like dip are easy to hide. He believes the certification is part of the university's campaign to be "America's healthiest campus," but that, at least in this instance, that promise is more slogan than substance.

That is not how Oklahoma State officials see it. "We have 99.9 percent compliance with the program," says Yvon Fils-Aime, Oklahoma State University's tobacco health educator. "When we started the policy, it took us one year from the time we advertised the policy to the time that we had the policy implemented. We did have plenty of time to educate our campus about what would be done. As of 2009, we found ... [a] 14 percent increase in non-smoking among our students, a 30 percent reduction in smoking [while] studying, and that 90 percent of our students are supporters."

One of the leading consultants to colleges trying to go tobacco-free is skeptical about Bacchus’s evaluation system. Bacchus makes its judgments almost solely on written policy commitments and on documentation that smoking signage is removed from campus. It does not visit campuses prior to certifying them, nor check up on universities to make sure policies are carried out -- raising questions of how accurate and rigorous the certificate can be.

“Based on my experience on working with over 400 higher education institutions since 2004, and with the specific experience of leading my own institution, Ozarks Technical Community College, to become completely tobacco-free, the real battle is not so much in certification of what an institution’s policy is,” says Ty Patterson, co-executive director of the National Center for Tobacco Policy. “The real question in my mind is: Is the institution making the policy work? Unfortunately, the reason I have this question is I have worked with institutions that have policies restricting tobacco use that they simply have not enforced. That makes me concerned more about the enforcement about the policy, making the policy work over time, having it change the culture, having the campus culture change in such a way as to make people respect others and the environment."

Bacchus says that it has done its research, and that the methodology behind its evaluations already incorporates these concerns. In addition to reading a university’s written policies, Quinn-Zobeck says, “We ask them, how did you get this policy passed? Did they involve students, did they involve faculty and staff? If they built the support, if they do a lot of education before it's implemented. [Many universities] will take over a year to educate the campus.”

Tracey Strader, executive director of the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, which provides grants for Oklahoma State University's tobacco-free program, thinks the issue is not whether to have a complete lockdown on tobacco but whether there is good policy: “Certification is: They have the policy and they intend to enforce it, and that they do enforce it, and I don’t think [colleges] can go much further than that.”

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