Students and employees at Winthrop University will have a chance this month to weigh in on whether the school should adopt a campus-wide ban on smoking.
Winthrop President Jayne Marie Comstock is supporting the student government association’s planned online survey in mid-November, which aims to gather the campus’ opinion on the issue.
The college has discussed a potential tobacco or smoking ban for a few years. Recently, several schools in South Carolina have enacted rules against smoking or using tobacco of any kind on their campuses.
Comstock, who took office at Winthrop in July, says if the decision to adopt a smoking ban were up to a “committee of one,” she’d choose to make the Rock Hill campus smoke-free. But she said she wants the entire campus community to weigh in before deciding on a direction.
She hopes the university will come to a conclusion on the issue in the next few months.
Over the past year, Winthrop’s student government – called CSL or the Council of Student Leaders – has encouraged debate and conversation on a potential smoking or tobacco ban. At a CSL-sponsored forum in late 2012, many students voiced concern over the health dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke. Other students – many of whom were smokers – said that if Winthrop enacted a ban, it would be a violation of their right to smoke when they choose.
Winthrop currently has 15 designated smoking areas, spread across campus. Some people at the school have complained that smokers disregard the existing smoking rules, which infringes on their right to walk on campus without breathing in smoke.
At the forum, one student said he was once unable to participate in a scheduled on-campus voice lesson because someone was smoking near him, outside of a designated area, while he was walking to class. The smoke caused a severe reaction, he said, that left him unable to sing.
Some smokers at Winthrop have said a smoking ban would force them to leave campus to light up, which they contend could present a safety problem.
Comstock has been proud, she said, to see students engaged in debating university policies and potential policies. While making their points in favor or against a ban, students are forming logical arguments, which is important in their development as critical thinkers, she said.
Still, she takes the safety and security of Winthrop’s campus seriously, she said, and sees promoting policies that encourage healthy living as a part of her duty as president.
Chris Aubrie, a senior majoring in international business, is the chair of CSL and is overseeing this month’s online survey. His group has studied the issue for some time, he said, but it wants to gather student and university employees’ opinions before taking the next step.
Last year, the student group published its opinion that existing smoking areas needed some upgrades to encourage smokers to use them, rather than walk around on campus while smoking. The group also said a campus-wide smoking ban could disenfranchise some people at Winthrop.
Recently, some members of CSL attended a tobacco-free summit in Columbia, where representatives from other schools explained the process and sometimes difficulty in enacting smoking or tobacco bans.
If Winthrop chooses to go smoke- or tobacco-free, Aubrie said, research shows it could take up to a year to introduce the topic, educate the campus and enact a ban.
And enforcement of a ban is often a hurdle for colleges that have gone smoke-free, he said.
Although it may be a challenge for a school to sell the idea of a smoking ban, Rock Hill doctor Dave Keely says it’s an important step for Winthrop to take. Keely owns Primary Care Medicine and Public Health Synergy on India Hook Road. He’s read studies about the effects of smoking and statistics about its prevalence among young people.
Data from 2011 and 2012 show a 27 percent increase of people smoking between the ages of 18 and 24 in South Carolina, he said. For adults of all ages, the increase was 21 percent.
“As a physician, I preach that there’s not one iota of health benefit from smoking,” Keely said. “There’s no safe level of tobacco smoke.”
He’s in favor of increasing taxes on tobacco purchases, he said, but that’s not likely to happen in South Carolina.
Keely has successfully lobbied local politicians to pass some indoor smoking bans as a means for workplace protection. York County, the city of Rock Hill and some other towns have ordinances that ban smoking indoors or just outside public buildings. Keely is gathering information from area hospitals to determine the affect such bans have had on local residents’ health.
Preliminary numbers, he said, show a significant reduction in acute heart attacks – likely attributed to a reduction in people smoking.
Around the time York County and many cities adopted indoors smoking bans, the federal government and South Carolina raised the tobacco tax.
Banning smoking – especially indoors where most people work – and an increased price tag on tobacco can result in people cutting back on smoking or quitting altogether, Keely said.
Young people, especially, he said, are price-sensitive.
And people under 25 – which is the age bracket of most of Winthrop’s students – are not completely developed in their risk-assessment skills, Keely said. While they may have heard about the dangers of smoking, he said, research shows that people under 25 are still developing the part of their brain that makes them “risk-sensitive” enough to change behavior.
Keely hopes to meet with Comstock and others at Winthrop to talk about the importance of a campus smoking ban.
Winthrop’s student government plans to share its survey findings with Comstock later this year.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068