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Tobacco-control policies ‘slipping in priority’ for Canadian campuses

Researchers find students are willing to follow no-smoking policies if they know what the rules are.


A Canadian study published last year in the Journal of American College Health found that every college and university that the researchers surveyed had a tobacco control policy or was in the process of creating one. But the researchers, led by principal author Lynne Baillie of the British Columbia Cancer Agency, were not assuaged. They found there was a gap between the “intent” and “outcome” of these policies.

“Although considerable progress has been made in controlling tobacco on campus,” the authors wrote, the extent of this control is not as great as the policies would suggest. Canadian campuses still “face a wide range of challenges, including a lack of dedicated and consistent tobacco control personnel, inadequate funding, ownership issues, and enforcement and monitoring dilemmas.” Students interpret these gaps between intent and outcome “as a tacit understanding that smoking can occur on campus without comment or consequence.”
The authors concluded that “tobacco control seems to be slipping in priority as a campus health concern.”

Kelli-an Lawrance, an associate professor in the department of community health sciences at Brock University, agreed that “there’s a bit of complacency around tobacco use. … I think a lot more could be done.” Dr. Lawrance is co-director and principal investigator of Leave the Pack Behind, a peer-to-peer tobacco control initiative for young adults at participating Ontario postsecondary institutions.

“When you talk to [university] administrators, you know, I’m not so sure the issue of tobacco control really moves them,” she said. “I think the issue of finances and leadership, good corporate image, are the things that speak to them. But those are all consistent with having a progressive tobacco policy.”

Tobacco control policies in Canada, in general, have had enormous success in recent decades, leading to declining rates of smoking. “People feel like the job is done,” said Dr. Lawrance. But what gets missed, she said, is that Canada still has a very high prevalence of smoking among young adults aged 20 to 24 – higher than for any other age demographic.

This makes addressing tobacco use at the postsecondary level critical, said Pippa Beck, policy analyst for the Ottawa chapter of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association. Last year, Ms. Beck authored the organization’s Tobacco-free campus guide, which explains why campuses should become smoke-free and lists the steps they can take to achieve that goal.

“I think there’s a role to be played by every single postsecondary institution in Canada,” she said. “The tobacco industry knows how important a transition [going to university or college] is for young people. You’re moving away from home and forging your own identity, and experimenting and meeting new people. That can be a time when a lot of students pick up smoking.” According to the provincial agency, Public Health Ontario, 20 percent of Canadian young adults try their first cigarette after the age of 18.

Some of the key elements to a tobacco-control policy, according to the Tobacco-free campus guide, include smoke-free residences; restricting smoking to designated outdoor smoking areas – or if feasible, implementing a 100 percent smoke-free campus; the provision and promotion of smoking cessation services to all students, faculty and campus staff; and a ban on tobacco promotions and sales on campus. The Leave the Pack Behind program promotes similar strategies.

Of these elements, a smoke-free campus is probably the most contentious, Ms. Beck acknowledged. In the study in the Journal of American College Health, the authors found that 10 of the 77 university policies they reviewed included a complete smoking ban across the entire campus. However, they found these policies were rarely honoured: “With the exception of faith-based institutions – where prospective students are clearly informed that smoking does not comply with the religious foundations of the university and will not be tolerated – there are no undergraduate university campuses in Canada where smoking does not take place.”

For a policy to work, “it certainly needs teeth,” said Ms. Beck. “You can’t have a policy that’s going to be openly mocked and disregarded by people. It’s just not a good way to go.”

Brock’s Dr. Lawrance sees a great deal of value in peer-to-peer enforcement. Students at Brock are encouraged to enforce smoking regulations, she said, and the university’s own Leave the Pack Behind team often does educational walkabouts around campus. (Brock allows smoking on campus in designated smoking areas only.) Dr. Lawrance said she, too, will approach smoking students and has rarely encountered any hostility. “I think, in the last five years, I’ve had one, maybe two, belligerent responses,” she said. “Mostly, people are very, very willing to follow the rules if they just know what they are.”

One of the universities with a full smoking ban is Dalhousie University, which claims to be the first in Canada to implement such a ban, in 2003. Smoking is prohibited in all university buildings, residences, vehicles and on all university property. An overwhelming 82 percent of the Dalhousie community supported the decision, according to a survey done the year it came into effect.

“It wasn’t unanimity but as close as you could get to it,” said Charles Crosby, senior adviser for media at Dalhousie. And there is still fairly widespread acceptance of the policy today – most policy violators are those who simply don’t know where they can and can’t smoke, he said. To this end, the university produced information cards last year bearing a map of the campus indicating where smoking is prohibited. Security officials hand out these cards to students when they see them in violation of the policy.

For Dalhousie, the problem now lies not with students smoking on campus but on adjacent city property and in the surrounding residential neighbourhoods. “It’s the kind of wrinkle that you may not initially think of,” said Mr. Crosby. “When you’re engaging in any kind of campaign like this, you really have to be aware of the fact that it doesn’t just impact your own folks, but everyone in the community.”

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  1. ty patterson / March 29, 2012 at 09:49

    This is an interesting article. We have helped over 600 higher education institutions learn how to implement and sustain tobacco-free campus policies.

    The author’s observation about the failure of institutions in Canada to effectively sustain such policies is true of many institutions in the US.

    Those institutions have attempted to implement their policy: too quickly, without broad instutional support, for laudable but ineffective reasons, and without a “community policing” approach to enforcement.

    We would love to talk with the autors or anyone interested in this topic.

    The “sin qua non” of efficacious tobacco-free campus policy is RESPECT!

    Ty Patterson

    Executive Director

    National Center for Tobacco Policy

    Springfield Missouri

    417 773 4262

  2. Sharon Lawler / April 4, 2012 at 09:54

    I agree with all the comments in this article and Ty’s comments. Having tried various approaches to impress upon university and college administrations that tobacco policies are important, and having failed in this endeavour, I think we need to have collaboration on how to get this done. It is not rocket science really. What needs to be done is simply have a good written policy, repeat the education of the campus population each semester and then enforce. The starting point is to effectively reach the presidents of all the universities and colleges. This can be done by presenting to meetings of these top administrators and providing the evidence which we have plenty of!

    I also would like to talk to others working on this issue.

  3. Fair View / October 31, 2012 at 13:47

    While I agree tobacco campus policies could be improved eve further, Canada has made great progress in this area, compared to other countries around the world. Sure, this is not time to rest on our laurels, but considering tobacco use is at an all-time low in this country, I think we’re on the right track

  4. Pat Kelly / May 9, 2013 at 11:03

    Students may be the missing factor in driving institutional change –

    Take a look at the short video below of our students in action: “Race to the Bottom: Ending Tobacco-friendly Campuses Across Canada”


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