On a gray Monday morning during final exam week, Caroline Gagné, a sophomore at Columbia College, casually sat on a bench against the wall outside of Butler Library, smoking a Camel Light cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. Just a normal smoke break – except that this time, by lighting up right beside the library, Gagné was in violation of a new policy on campus.
The University Senate passed a resolution on Dec. 3 that prohibits smoking within 20 feet of all campus buildings on Columbia’s Morningside campus. Technically, the smoking ban is now in effect, but students are not being held accountable for transgressing it yet, according to Michael McNeil, Director of Columbia’s health services program Alice!, which promotes health initiatives to students.
“We feel it is our responsibility to allow some time to disseminate information to the institution, move receptacles, and put up proper signage before action will be taken to enforce this policy,” said McNeil, who also chaired the campus Tobacco Work Group that spent the past two years reviewing Columbia’s tobacco policies.
The university’s goal is to have all of that in place by Jan. 18, the first day of spring semester, said McNeil.
So Gagné, who was smoking about a foot away from Butler Library, was safe for the moment – and not too worried about the future..
“Twenty feet away is not that big a deal,’ she said. “I don’t think it would be that much of a sacrifice.”
If Gagné does violate the smoking ban once it’s formally in effect, she could be subject to a warning. But McNeil said that enforcement of the ban is a community issue and hoped that faculty and students will help enforce the policy on campus.
“We see no need for a heavy handed approach to this at all,” said McNeil. “We’re not expecting an issue. When people are aware or they are reminded, they generally comply.”
The Senate debate early this month initially considered banning smoking 50 feet from all Morningside campus buildings. The limit was reduced to 20 feet due to concerns about compliance and enforceability, according to Alex Frouman, a student senator for Columbia College. Frouman said that a 20-foot ban seemed more feasible, in part because banning smoking 50 feet from any building would de facto create a total smoking ban in the northeast part of the Morningside campus.
Some in the Senate favored a flat ban on smoking anywhere on campus. But after a contentious debate, the 20-foot ban was passed by a 31-13 vote in the University Senate,
Despite the lopsided vote, some senators say the debate is not over.
Mark A. Cohen, a Columbia Business School professor, is calling for a full smoking ban on campus.
“It’s a dangerous issue, and on top of that it’s unsanitary, unsightly and it ought to be something that the university rids itself of categorically,” said Cohen, a former smoker.
The 20-foot ban complies with New York State law, which requires that colleges and universities forbid smoking within 20 feet of college residence halls. The state ban does not cover other academic buildings, but the university wanted to implement a consistent rule throughout campus, according to McNeil.
The university’s former smoking policy only prohibited smoking near residences halls. Certain buildings had imposed their own rules, such as the architecture school’s Avery Hall, which has maintained a ban on smoking within 50 feet of the building. The new 20-foot ban creates a uniform campus policy, negating specific building restrictions like the one at Avery.
With this policy, Columbia joins over 500 U.S. colleges and universities – about a fifth of all higher education campuses in the country – in implementing a smoking ban. At least 446 of these campuses are 100 percent smoke free, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.
Campus-wide bans have been controversial at some institutions, such as the University of Kentucky, where pro-nicotine students staged a “smoke-out” in protest, according to the Time magazine article “Campus Smoking Bans? Some Saying ‘Lighten Up.’”
“A full ban would be unfair,” said Gagné “People would be late for class and on Broadway smoking thousands of cigarettes. People would still smoke on campus and get into trouble. Smoking is an addiction that some people aren’t ready to give up.”
But Cohen pointed out that Columbia’s Medical School campus on 168th Street and Broadway already instituted a full smoking ban and said the main campus also should act consistently with that decision.
“I understand the trauma of a smoker who is being deprived,” said Cohen, “But so what? It’s not something the university should support. It’s a poisonous habit.”
“I think the 20 or 50 foot rule is silly because are you going to have public safety officers walking around with tape measures?” he continued. “Are you going to delineate lines on the sidewalk to figure out where you can smoke?”
Brian Rice, a smoker and Columbia Law student, thinks that a 20-foot ban is reasonable, but he also opposes a full ban. “I think it would have the effect of just externalizing the problem, forcing the university’s smokers, along with their smoke and litter onto Columbia’s neighbors. I question the feasibility and desirability of enforcing such a ban.”
Rice admitted that smoking is a lonesome habit on this campus. Only about 16 percent of Columbia students are smokers, according to McNeil.
Smoking is legal as long as smokers meet New York state age regulations, said McNeil, but private organizations and public venues have the authority to establish guidelines limiting or banning smoking on their premises.
Ron Mazor, a student senator for Columbia Law School, is against a full smoking ban but feels that the new 20-foot ban is a fair compromise. He expressed concern that a full ban would infringe upon the rights of smokers at Columbia. Mazor does not smoke.
“I think smokers are a significant and valued group of people on campus who should be treated with consideration for their personal choice regarding a legal habit,” said Mazor.
He added, “Smoking restrictions that go significantly beyond state law, such as a full ban, only serve to alienate them and create severe hardship for them while on campus. Such a ban is antithetical to creating a tolerant space of free, open exchange and interaction.”
Cohen plans to propose a full ban resolution at the Senate’s next meeting on Feb. 4.