Rensselaer among few with smoke-free campus

You finally have time to go out and see a movie, the only tests you have are in your nightmares, the sun stays up for so long and your days so full that you don’t feel guilty going to bed at 9 pm, and you trade personal freedom and nagging for free rent by living with your parents: welcome to summer! You now have soaked up—literally and figuratively—almost half of your summer vacation. For some that means you can’t wait to get back to start your fall semester at RPI, and for others, you are having too much fun enjoying freedom and your less rigid summer schedule. Regardless, enjoy it for what it is; someday a three month long vacation period will be unfathomable.

I sincerely hope your summer finds you well as you flip through this special summer edition of The Poly. I last left off writing to you in mid-May. Well, it is now mid-July and there have been some breakthroughs on campus, but in particular I’d like to talk about the new campus smoking policy.

A few weeks ago you received an e-mail from Vice President of Human Resources Curtis Powell about the tobacco-free campus initiative that became effective July 1. Remember our previous policy? There was to be no smoking within 25 feet of a residence hall and smoking was permitted anywhere else outside of campus buildings. But the policy did not work well, as cigarette smoke moved into dorm rooms and classrooms and students smoked on the steps of Sage Labs. Ultimately, I wasn’t going to die inhaling a bit of this smoke as I walked past, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. I am also aware that some students have asthma, with some being extremely allergic to smoke. I’m of the belief that although we now sacrifice some personal liberties, we will see an overall healthier community and this new policy will work for the greater good.

To fully understand the new policy, I did some research on the subject. I first found a document from the American Lung Association called Colleges and Universities with 100 percent Tobacco-Free Campus Policies. This document is current as of July 2010 and listed 249 colleges, including RPI, that are completely tobacco-free. I also found a document from the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation titled U.S. Colleges and Universities with Smoke-free Air Policies. This document cites 420 institutions that have smoke-free campuses, but that may allow some tobacco products. In a nutshell, there is a precedent for such a policy as we now have, yet with over 2,500 colleges in the country (including community colleges), we are still part of a unique group.

What really surprised me about these lists was that I didn’t find one of our peer or aspirant colleges anywhere. That is, RPI regularly benchmarks itself against “market basket” colleges with which we compete—MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, etc … but none were to be found on any of these lists. What I like about this is that it shows some progressive thinking on behalf of RPI and a desire to lead, not necessarily emulate or follow. I imagine that someday in the future all of our competing institutions will have signed on to such a program. I think it is more of a case of when, not if, this initiative will become ubiquitous. So why not lead the way?

July 1 also marked the completion of a “double whammy” on smokers. Effective July 1, the N.Y. State Legislature passed an excise tax on cigarettes of an additional $1.60 per pack that will bring prices up to an average of $9.20 per pack—the highest price anywhere in the country.

Admittedly I’ve never been a smoker, so I can’t begin to understand the physical and mental ramifications of this new policy. But realistically, tobacco users now just have to wander a bit farther, a slight inconvenience. I can’t think of anywhere on campus that is more than 100 yards from a public sidewalk.

The one thing about this new policy that bothers me is the vague nature of the enforcement. All community members are to police the policy. Also, “monetary fines” have not been rule out as enforcement. How will fines be levied? I will be working with Human Resources to hopefully develop more adequately defined enforcement guidelines so that no students are met with surprising penalties. Maybe there will be a specific three strike policy or the like before any fine or more stringent punishment. Invariably people will breach the policy, so I’d like as much feedback as possible as we acclimate. If you have a story, positive or negative, about the new policy, or just want to send a comment my way, e-mail me at—disclaimer: I save all comments or opinions of any type on a running excel file. To learn more about the policy itself and read FAQs, visit the website.

I want to close with a bit of perspective: did you know that Brigham Young University of Utah does not sell caffeinated beverages on campus? Imagine no energy drinks! Imagine studying with no caffeine! Now let’s count our blessings and embrace what will soon be a healthier campus.

Editor’s note: The current policy is to only fine tobacco users after a third offense. Read “Tobacco-free policy begins” in The Poly‘s news section for more information.