More than 1,130 U.S. higher ed institutions have implemented smoke-free campus policies, and the number is expected to climb, according to the organization Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. The University of California can soon be added to the list. Starting in 2014, each of its 10 campuses will be tobacco-free, says UC, Riverside spokesperson Kris Lovekin. To promote a campus event relating to the annual Great American Smokeout this past November, student affairs staff distributed zombie-themed cards modeling an app developed by the American Cancer Society. The card’s caption: “Smoking will get you before zombies will. Quit before you get bit by illness, disease, and death.”
Although campus zombie sightings are rare (aside from during finals week), institutions are deathly serious about building a healthy workforce and slashing health care expenses. Each year, smoking-related diseases kill more than 400,000 people and cost employers at least $97 billion in lost productivity and $96 billion in direct health care expenditures, according to the American Lung Association.
However, implementing a campuswide ban can be tricky. How can schools avoid employee and student backlash?
Communicate Early, Often
When Kentucky hospitals banned smoking in 2009, University of Kentucky made its entire campus, not just its teaching hospital, smoke-free. Advance communication with the entire campus community was key, says John Buzzard, HR communications officer.
Student mailers went out prior to the fall semester. Common areas had signage. Patients scheduled for procedures at the campus hospital were mailed policy information. Faculty and staff are now emailed annual reminders and offered free tobacco cessation counseling or nicotine replacement therapy.
There’s been no backlash—not even from smokers. Buzzard believes it’s because peer pressure, not strict policing, is used to monitor and enforce compliance.
Also, the city of Lexington banned smoking in enclosed, public spaces several years prior—so perhaps locals grew accustomed to breathing clean air. “We did comparative research with other organizations that have done this in the past,” says Buzzard. “All of those advanced planning efforts really paid off in the end.”
Communication at the University of Arkansas, which became smoke-free in July 2008, began 14 months in advance.
Leading the school’s efforts were the Pat Walker Health Center and student affairs department, explains Barbara Abercrombie, associate vice chancellor for HR, but her department helped along the way.
Major efforts included a smoking ban website, campuswide signage, email reminders to all 4,200 employees (including mention of free smoking cessation workshops), and distribution of free resource guides on smoking cessation. HR reminded employees that their health plan covers nicotine gum and patches.
When the state legislature passed a law last year prohibiting smoking on school campuses and in state buildings, the campus ban got a big push of support. The law, Abercrombie says, gives campus police more legitimacy when monitoring and enforcing the ban.
Make Nonsmoking Fun
To promote a smoking ban at The College of Saint Rose (N.Y.) when it went into effect last January, officials decided to have some fun. Back in 2011, the health services department sponsored a mini fair in the student union on the same day of the Great American Smokeout. “The place was packed,” reports Dennis McDonald, vice president of student affairs.
The fair featured makeshift bowling lanes and quizzes about smoking’s health impact. Attendees could win customized bears and other prizes, and take home a “Breathe Easy” sticker. The event’s total cost was about $1,200.
The American Cancer Society asked Saint Rose and Russell Sage College, also in New York, to announce their tobacco-free status at a joint press conference. Presidents of both schools and a student from each explained the importance of the smoking ban.
In planning any promotion, aim to really capture people’s attention, McDonald says. “Being creative in multiple ways just drives the message home more clearly and more effectively.”