Imagine it's the end of the semester. Students are pulling all-nighters to complete term papers and study for final exams. The stress level is off the charts, and some students reach for the pack of cigarettes for a "quick smoke" to help calm their nerves. For the growing number of colleges and universities that have adopted tobacco-free policies, this is their final exam.
In July 2010, Widener University became the first university in Pennsylvania to implement a tobacco-free policy. The policy prohibits not only smoking on campus property—inside and out—but the use of all tobacco products. As of May 2011, 246 colleges and universities nationwide have adopted such a policy, with many more considering it.
Over the past year, we have learned what our university did right, and what could have done better, in implementing its policy. Here are nine actions to consider while moving forward with a tobacco-free policy:
- Make your plan part of something bigger. A broader healthy living strategy for campus can incorporate the tobacco-free plan. Provide a variety of programming and incentives that promote exercise, proper nutrition, and mental health. Such a strategy demonstrates institutional concern for the well-being of students, faculty, and staff. Without one, a tobacco-free policy will wind up appearing targeted and punitive.
- Provide a transition period. Don't institute a tobacco-free policy cold turkey. Provide a six-to 12-month transition period. This time can be used to generate buy-in, offer tobacco cessation programs, and communicate thoroughly to all your constituents.
- Consider your neighbors. Since students, faculty, and staff can't smoke on campus, they will go off campus to do so. Realize this in advance and communicate plans for your policy to neighboring residents and businesses. Get their feedback and directly address potential issues (e.g., noise, loitering, cigarette butts).
- Help them break the habit. During your transition period and after you implement your policy, provide faculty, staff, and students with a variety of programming to help them quit using tobacco, including one-on-one counseling, nicotine replacement options (patches/gum), and education programs.
- Promote your champions. To encourage those who are trying to quit, find people who already have quit and recognize them. Profile them on your website, in your institution's internal newsletter, or hold a reception for them. Their stories will help motivate others.
- Develop partnerships. Widener teamed with Independence Blue Cross to provide smoking cessation educational programming. Another partnership, with the Franklin Institute, which was presenting a Body Worlds exhibit, provided discounted tickets for students and faculty.
- Listen and respond. Listen to those who oppose your policy and be responsive. Consider including detractors in a panel discussion that promotes civil debate. Make them part of the process, not outsiders.
- Consider international students. Not all cultures view tobacco use the way Americans do. Communicate with your campus's global community to explain why a tobacco-free policy is being implemented.
- Address enforcement. It's the issue institutions struggle with most. Enforce with a heavy hand and you'll come off as Draconian. Enforce too lightly and the policy will be ignored. At Widener, the first offense results in a written warning, the second a $25 fine, the third a $50 fine, and the fourth suspension from the university. The key to enforcement is in the buy-in generated on campus for the policy. If you've incorporated the suggestions above into your tobacco-free policy, your community will be a part of your policy, and members will be more likely to approach a fellow student, colleague, or visitor and say, "Excuse me, the university is tobacco free."
Based on your institution's culture and location, you may face different challenges. Urban campuses will have different challenges than suburban or rural campuses. Colleges and universities with unionized faculty and/or staff will need to work with those unions. The key is to openly engage and communicate with all constituents and to generate buy-in and consensus. Those who don't will find they are just blowing smoke.
—Caryl Carpenter is a professor of health care management and Lynn Nelson Russom is director of health services at Widener University in Chester, Pa. Both serve on Widener's Wellness Advisory Committee and were instrumental in developing the "Proud to be Tobacco Free" initiative.