Students organize to stop up-coming tobacco ban

Alex Greenlee | The Free Press

Posted on November 05, 2012 in News
By Kirsten Sylvain

With the pressure of the smoking ban looming as January approaches, a small group of students is beginning to mobilize to stop it.

The group, spear-headed by freshman Jordana Avital, met last week and invited other students to discuss the ban in a forum. The 15 or so students who attended were a mixture of smokers and nonsmokers. At the forum students and leaders in campus health had the opportunity to talk about the ban.

Avital stressed the importance of the right to make the choice and offered up more clearly designated smoking areas as an alternative, claiming that as an incoming freshman, she had no idea where to smoke when she first came to USM. She also stressed that the policy is creating an “us versus them” mentality on campus. She is concerned that students are unaware of the fact that the ban is even happening, saying that she has spoken with many students who believe that it is hearsay or rumor.

Other students offered up their own objections. “One of the biggest issues is that you’re trying to alter a state of social belief, and it’s not ready to be altered,” said student senator Andrew Kalloch. He is also concerned that while the university is trying to boost enrollment numbers, it might actually end up pushing away prospective and current students with the new policy. “It’s a cultural issue, and I don’t think it’s the place of the institution,” he said.

Adriana Worthing, a senior psychology major and smoker, also expressed her concern for the safety of students going off campus at night to find a spot to smoke, and another student, David Rubinoff, a junior nonsmoker and psychology major, explained that his main concern is the infringement of the rights of students. He also believes that the new ban won’t be as effective as officials hope it will be. “People tell me that a policy change isn’t going to stop them,” he said. “I think Public Safety is going to have their work cut out for them.” He plans to start a committee to get students more involved in the effort and to push students to clean up after themselves at designated smoking areas.

Wendy Chapkis, professor of Sociology and Director of the Women and Gender Studies program helped Avital plan the event. She commented on the new ban. “I am not a smoker,” she said. “But my research is in the area of drug policy, and what I know of prohibition is that it is generally a failed policy.” She believes that there are other alternative policies that could be more successful than the ban, which she referred to as “harm reduction strategies,” terminology used in drug policy talk. An example of one of these policies would include designated smoking areas, education or the availability of nicotine in other less harmful forms.

When asked about what products the ban will apply to, Chapkis responded with uncertainty. “It’s not clear to me that that’s really the problem they’re trying to address,” she said. She acknowledged that she is also uncertain as to whether or not the objective of the ban will be to enforce a zero tolerance policy of tobacco products on campus or to reduce the health risks of second-hand smoke. “If it’s really about second-hand smoke, and not about zero tolerance for tobacco, than I think they wouldn’t be fined,” she said, referring to those students using tobacco products other than cigarettes on campus.

Judie O’Malley, assistant director of USM Public Affairs, responded to questions about the forum. “Students are welcome to exercise their right of free speech, but the policy is in place.” She explained that the ban, although it might seem that way to new students, was not hastily passed.  It was worked on for years and eventually won approval from all four senates: faculty, student, classified staff and professional staff.

USM President Theo Kalikow stated that it is a health issue, public and individual, and a difficult issue in which individual freedom and public safety intersect, but she isn’t faltering. “I expected there would be outcries, and I don’t think they’re going to change my mind,” she said. “You know, people get sick and die from this.” She explained that she feels that as an institution, the university cannot condone it as a matter of health. “We do what we think is right, and others say what they think is right, but in the end, we make a decision,” she said.

The ban is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013, giving these students little time to mobilize. The group is scheduled to hold another forum in Gorham on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at the Student Center.