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Banned in 2009, smoking continues at UB

The University at Buffalo  banned smoking in 2009. But walk on campus on any given day, and you will see students, faculty and staff puffing in parking lots, lighting up on sidewalks and vaping at the entrances to some of the university's most heavily trafficked buildings.

Enforcement of the smoking ban has been lax and inconsistent, and nine years after the ban took effect, some smokers don't even know that smoking is prohibited on campus.

Now, a university-wide committee is recommending more stringent enforcement of the smoke-free policy, including potential fines for smoking, vaping or other tobacco use within 100 feet of any university building.

"If we claim to be a smoke-free campus, we really should make an effort to be a smoke-free campus," said Domenic J. Licata, who is chairman of the UB Professional Staff Senate and part of the special "Breathe Free UB" committee.

The committee last month submitted a proposed new smoke-free policy for the university to President Satish K. Tripathi, along with a 36-page report detailing shortcomings of the 2009 policy and results of a survey on smoking of more than 2,600 respondents.

The draft policy calls for widespread notification to students, employees, vendors, contractors and campus visitors stating that smoking, vaping and the use of any tobacco-related products is prohibited in all areas of UB's campuses – North, South, Downtown and Medical – including buildings, stairwells, restrooms, sidewalks and fields. It also recommends targeted enforcement efforts with zones of 100 feet from buildings, where people are most at risk of inhaling second-hand smoke.

"If you walk around the campus, especially in the high traffic areas, like entrances to buildings, egress to parking lots, places that have overhangs, there's a lot of smoking going on," said Dr. Philip Glick, a professor in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and chairman on the Faculty Senate.  "Our intent is to have zero exposure of secondhand smoke . . . We just don't want any secondhand smoke on campus. What people do in their own private lives is their own business."

The committee recommended that violators face fines of $50 or community service.

Licata and Glick acknowledged that enforcement of the proposed policy will be a challenge.

Under the current policy, compliance with the smoking ban largely is a matter of personal choice.

UB Police told the committee that officers can't enforce any smoke-free policy unless there is a violation of a state or local law or ordinance.  A bill passed the state Assembly making the sale and use of tobacco illegal on all State University of New York campuses, but the Senate hasn't passed similar legislation.

At the same time, unions that represent many employees on campus have maintained that staff can't be punished for smoking because such discipline isn't specifically spelled out in the terms of their employment. One of the largest unions at UB, CSEA, even negotiated carve-out language excluding members from counsel or discipline as a result of smoking.

With their hands tied on enforcing the policy for employees, some UB officials said it was unfair to discipline students for smoking violations by blocking their ability to register for classes or other measures.

Despite the 2009 smoke-free policy, many nonsmokers continue to be exposed to second- hand smoke on campus.  More than 80 percent of nonsmokers surveyed in a recent study by the committee reported breathing second-hand smoke at least once a week at UB, while 68 percent said they were exposed to second-hand smoke multiple times per week, and more than half said they took a different route to spots on campus to avoid inhaling second-hand smoke.

In a memo last week to Licata and Glick, Tripathi said there were still "many issues around sanctions" for smokers on campus. But Tripathi also said the university will introduce three initiatives to promote a smoke-free environment, including:

  • Reviewing and updating "no smoking" signage on campus;
  • Reinforcing a "smoke-free culture" through enhanced orientation programming for new faculty, staff and students; and,
  • Enhancing "smoke-free messaging" at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters at high pedestrian areas and other areas that tend to attract smokers.

In reviewing the 2009 policy, the special committee discussed whether to consider allowing designated smoking areas on campus, away from nonsmokers. The idea was rejected as impractical and hypocritical, said Glick and Licata.

Other large institutions in the region already have stronger non-smoking policies and compliance on their campuses, including Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Niagara County Community College, said Glick.

Both he and Licata acknowledged that better compliance won't happen overnight at UB. They also said the university would need to negotiate agreements with its unions to get them to buy into the proposed policy and its enforcement provisions.

One way to do that is by having violating employees attend wellness sessions or receive mandatory counseling during their working hours. Such a strategy would put some of the onus for reducing smoking on supervisors, who prefer not to have lost work hours and would thus be more vigilant about making sure their employees don't smoke on campus.

Ultimately, the key to a smoke-free campus will be greater outreach and communication, said Licata.

He compared it to efforts to curb littering, which decades ago was common and accepted and now is considered wrong and unacceptable.

"We want to get to the point where people know smoking on campus is the wrong thing to do," he said.

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