UMass begins ban on tobacco products

By Soren Hough

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On July 1, 2013, the University of Massachusetts went completely tobacco-free, officially banning traditional and e-cigarettes, hookahs and chew.

Flickr/Fried Dough

Tobacco-free policies are supported by the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College Health Association. The University hopes that the initiative will improve health standards for students and employees alike.

The town of Amherst has already implemented a ban on the sale of cigarettes from “any stores with health care institutions inside them,” according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The regulations affect chains like CVS that offer in-house pharmacies.

UMass students and faculty worked together on a health council to debate and write the new campus-wide rules. One of the foremost supporters of a tobacco-free campus is associate professor of microbiology Wilmore Webley.

In August, Webley addressed the University’s residential life faculty about the plan. He opened his presentation by drawing the link between tobacco and lung cancer, the No. 1 deadliest cancer in the United States, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“One in five deaths in the United States is related to tobacco,” Webley said, speaking to resident assistants and peer mentors. “If anything else was killing 20 percent of our population, we’d be outraged.”

Added Webley: “What use is it if you get a fantastic education from a top [Research I] university, but you can’t do what you set out to do because of the effects of smoke or secondhand smoke?”

The tobacco-free policy comes in the wake of landmark reports from the Surgeon General in both 2006 and 2010 placing emphasis on the idea that “no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke” had been found. Secondhand smoke, also called “passive smoke,” is the unfiltered, carcinogenic byproduct of burning tobacco.

“So how can you protect everyone who doesn’t want to smoke?” Webley said. “This policy is an answer to that question.”

Webley assured students that the intention of the ban isn’t to hurt tobacco users.

“While we do have a tobacco-free policy, we have to be sensitive,” Webley said. “We value those students and the diversity they bring to campus.”

Instead, Webley said that the policy is meant to protect students, faculty and workers from unwanted risk.

“If all that [tobacco] did was kill the people who used it, we couldn’t ban it – people have control over their bodies,” Webley said. “But 50,000 people die every year in this country without ever putting a cigarette to their mouths.”

One of the biggest concerns students have raised about going tobacco-free is the lack of penalties for non-compliance. As of now, no fines or security teams have been put in place.

“A lot of people [on the council] focused on enforcement, enforcement, enforcement,” Webley recalled. “But I’m concerned with education.”

He believes that the policy now reflects that sentiment.

UMass is now one of more than 1,000 different schools across the country to adopt a tobacco-free campus. While a few schools have hired security officers to levy fines from offenders, Webley said that the majority of those campuses have been successful without taking that extra step.

He stated that “having a tobacco-free campus is a change in social norms,” and that the change would require “a community effort.”

As with any policy violation, there will be disciplinary action for repeatedly ignoring school rules. Nevertheless, Webley hopes the policy will “engender conversation, not confrontation.”

In a letter to The Massachusetts Daily Collegian in 2011, student Nathan Lamb stated that “students should fume over [the] smoking ban.” He went further to decry the ban on smokeless tobacco products like electronic cigarettes, which contain no tobacco at all.

In his presentation, Webley addressed these qualms. He said that electronic cigarettes, which contain equal if not increased amounts of nicotine over traditional cigarettes, carry with them the risk of congestive heart failure, seizures and loss of vision.

And though e-cigarettes are smokeless, John Kelly of the Washington Post recently warned that the secondhand vapor produced by the devices is understudied.

Citing research from the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, Kelly said that both nicotine and propylene glycol had already been found in secondhand vapor. Propylene glycol is an organic compound that has been linked to allergic development in children.

Users of the banned products are now being asked to leave the UMass campus if they need to use tobacco but they are not being required to quit.

“The policy doesn’t say you can’t smoke – it just says you can’t smoke here,” Webley said.

Nevertheless, there are facilities in place to help smokers with voluntary tobacco cessation. University Health Services is now equipped with nicotine replacements, including patches and gum, as well as free one-on-one counseling. The school is also offering vouchers to help alleviate the cost of nicotine replacement therapies for addicted students.

Despite the risks to non-smokers, some students have continued to protest a tobacco-free campus.

In response, Webley said, “You’re always going to find a faction of people who oppose this. But does that mean the rest of us should continue dying?”

Soren Hough can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note: In the original version of this story, The Collegian misreported that Wilmore Webley is an assistant professor of microbiology. Webley is an associate professor of microbiology. The Collegian regrets this error.