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Northeastern University's new smoking ban gets mixed reviews

Posted by boston.com  November 12, 2013 01:05 PM

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A tree planter is crammed with cigarette butts on Huntington Avenue.

While Northeastern University officials say the transition to a smoke-free campus has been a success, some students are skeptical about what the ban is trying to achieve.

“One of the things that we are excited about is how smoothly the implementation has been,” said Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and chair of the committee that spearheaded the ban. “I love the way the spirit has been taken up by the community – the spirit to go smoke-free.”

But some students say the reality of the ban is not as positive as officials make it seem.

“It doesn’t decrease smoking – it just concentrates it to certain areas,” said Damas Limoge, a fifth-year student at Northeastern. “I’ve never seen this many people smoking on Huntington [Avenue] before.”

The ban, which took effect Aug. 12, prohibits smoking on all property owned or controlled by the university. While violations of the ban are not punished, university officials consider the move a public health measure that they hope will encourage smokers to quit.

“Our goal is to help people avoid the consequences of cigarette smoking – and that’s everyone,” Fulmer said, noting that half a million people die every year from smoking or related causes. “We want to be part of the solution.”

Limoge, a smoker, raised questions about what the ban solves.

“The question becomes, are you looking to eliminate smoking, or are you looking to say you’re eliminating smoking?” said Limoge. “Are we trying to keep pace with what fellow Massachusetts colleges are doing, or are we trying to help students?”

Limoge said the ban – which is part of a national trend to limit smoking on college campuses – has not presented much of a challenge for him. Like many other student smokers, he now walks two minutes from campus to smoke on Huntington Avenue, a city street that cuts straight through the center of campus.

A recent trip down Huntington found students lighting up along the sidewalks, using tree stumps as ashtrays and tossing cigarette butts on the ground.

“I wish there were designated smoking areas,” said Sara, a fourth-year student and smoker who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m worried about what I’m going to do once the weather becomes cold.”

Joseph Dussault, a sophomore, said he has noticed less smoking on campus than his freshman year. But he said there are more students lighting up on campus now than there were at the start of the school year.

“Now, people realize there is not much the administration is doing to enforce the ban,” he said.

Dussault said he understands why the university wanted to implement the ban, but also why students are opposed to it.

“I think the administration is aware that they can’t really enforce it,” he said, “but at least now they can say, ‘We’re doing what we can.’”

In conjunction with the ban, Northeastern has expanded its smoking-cessation offerings. Earlier this year, it launched a Ready to Quit! program that provides support via coaching meetings with a nurse, weekly follow-up phone calls and encouraging text messages. The university also offers free nicotine patches and support groups.

While NU officials said they could not provide data on program participation, Fulmer said it was her understanding that the smoking-cessation programs have been effective.

“I think that through our Ready to Quit program and other smoke-free initiatives, we’re really getting the message across,” she said.

But some students questioned the efforts. Limoge said that when he reached out to University Health and Counseling Services in hopes of finding information about quit-smoking programs, he was referred to a staff member who did not contact him about scheduling an appointment until a week later. He said he was frustrated by what he perceived as a “lack of urgency.”

Fulmer said NU would continue to look at ways to safeguard students’ health and promote healthy behavior, in both programs and messages.

“Here’s an example: maybe we should take out all the candy and soda machines,” Fulmer said. “It wouldn’t be a big deal – because people could just buy at a convenience store up the street – but it’s about the message we’re trying to send.”

Richard Daynard, a professor of law at Northeastern and member of the committee that pushed the ban, said it was important for the university to assume a leadership role.

“As an institution of young people, we have an obligation to model appropriate, healthy behavior,” he said.

Northeastern joins hundreds of campuses that have become smoke-free, including at least 15 in Massachusetts. Other smoke-free campuses in Boston include Boston University Medical Campus, Tufts University and Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Some NU students said they have noticed a positive difference on campus.

“Now I can breathe when I walk into Snell Library,” said
Amy Steele, a third-year student. “You can tell when you’re coming onto campus, versus leaving it.”

She said she would prefer to see fewer students smoking than merely stepping off campus.

“I know it’s a hard habit to break,” she said, “but I hope that people will take advantage of university resources and really make an effort to quit.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration with The Boston Globe.

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