The push to have colleges be tobacco-free this fall

As COVID-19 continues to spread, new concerns have prompted two legislators to ask the CDC to offer new guidance for smoking and vaping on campus
By: | September 4, 2020
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More than 2,000 colleges and universities across the U.S. are tobacco-free, that is they prohibit all smoking and smoking products on their campuses. Still, there are many institutions that do allow smoking in some form, including designated areas.

As those campuses start to reopen, what happens when those who smoke decide to light up and have to remove university-mandated face coverings? Could they be more likely to spread COVID-19 if they have it?

Those are questions being raised by two Illinois political leaders who have urged the Centers for Disease Control to update its guidelines for higher education institutions, citing concerns about the connection between those who smoke and the spread of COVID-19. They say they are particularly troubled by a recent study out of Stanford University from the Journal of Adolescent Health that showed teens and young adults who use vaping products are “five times more likely than non-vapers to be diagnosed with COVID-19.”

In the letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, both Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi are calling on the CDC to “encourage campuses to go tobacco-free – which would include e-cigarettes – for the fall semester. With the added public health risk posed by the coronavirus, the CDC must act quickly and forcefully.”

Durbin and Krishnamoorthi also highlighted that tobacco use among students in particular pose a higher risk for infection.

“College-age tobacco users are at heightened risk of contracting the virus, and they will spread it,” they said in the letter. “Young people are increasingly driving the spread of COVID-19, and that will only increase with reopened college campuses if appropriate public health precautions are not strictly implemented and enforced.”

Important numbers

According to statistics from the American Nonsmokers’ Right Foundation, there are approximately 2,500 campuses that prohibit smoking and about 2,100 that prohibit smoking and all tobacco products.

However, there are many colleges that have been slow to implement policies or take a stand against tobacco. For example, despite pleas from the Ohio Board of Regents for schools to go tobacco-free back in 2012, nine of the 23 community colleges in the state and two public universities still allow tobacco products in designated areas.

Because of the worries over potential spread during the pandemic, the two Illinois congressmen point out in their letter to the CDC it might be time for campuses who have a limited policy or none at all to consider a ban at least through the fall.

One higher ed institution that recently changed its stance was the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, which decided to go tobacco-free in mid-August. School officials noted, however, that the policy could be adjusted in the future.

Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., also decided to go tobacco-free this fall but with a very forward message to its community: they plan to offer assistance to tobacco users, not shun them.

Helpful resources and strategies

For colleges and universities looking to follow in the footsteps of UNLV and Orange Coast, there are a number of resources and strategies to consider.

The Tobacco-Free Generation Campus Initiative offers grants “to accelerate and expand the adoption and implementation of 100% smoke- and tobacco-free policies on campuses.” Colleges and universities can also and keep track of the latest CDC updates: Dr. Redfield and the team have been given until Wednesday to announce whether they will offer additional guidance to colleges and universities on tobacco use on campuses this fall.

One of the most helpful sources in starting up a smoke-free or tobacco-free environment on campus is the American Nonsmokers Rights Foundation. It offers a policy form that can be drawn up and enacted by colleges and universities. It also has a number of tips, particularly for student organizations or groups, to get a groundswell of support going.

Once a college or university has decided to make their campus smoke-free or tobacco-free, enforcement is important and the Foundation offers these strategies to help colleges and universities:

  • Include clear enforcement provisions in the policy, such as disciplinary action that matches other student code violations to fines, education/cessation classes, and beyond.
  • Educate and obtain buy-in from campus populations from the earliest stages of tobacco policy development. That can help improve enforcement later. It should include faculty and staff, and how the policy will be enforced. The Foundation notes it is important to educate campus security staff about the policy and what role they can play in connecting with others on campus.
  • Offer continuing education when the policy is launched and thereafter. Put up tobacco-free campus signs at “hot spots” where tobacco use has frequently been observed and banners welcoming people to a tobacco-free campus. Highlight the policy in all student materials.
  • Get the word out either in print products or by creating “an ambassadors program” to train those to help spread the message and provide alternatives for those on campus who are smokers.
  • Make resources available online. The Foundation recommends providing robust information on the campus website, including a map as well as an anonymous to report offenders. Colleges can also offer training to violators.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor at University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com