Widener University practices a strict tobacco-free policy

Widener University students make all kinds of decisions about their lives, from how much to drink at parties to whether to show up for classes.

But there’s one decision the school has made for them:

No using tobacco. Not on campus.

Last year, Widener became the first four-year school in Pennsylvania to go not just smoke-free but tobacco-free, adopting a simple, stringent policy:

No cigarettes, no cigars, no cigarillos, no pipes, no hookahs, no pinch between the cheek and gum. Nowhere, no time, no how.

WIDENER UNIVERSITY PRACTICES A STRICT TOBACCO-FREE POLICY

WIDENER UNIVERSITY PRACTICES A STRICT TOBACCO-FREE POLICY

The rule also applies to faculty and staff, and to visitors and contractors, banning tobacco use even in personal cars or work trucks that drive onto campus.

So how is it working out?

“I know a lot of people on campus who do smoke, and they’re smoking less,” said Ashley Nilsen, a senior civil-engineering major from Waymart, Pa. “It’s good for the rest of us.”

Smokers who used to congregate outside building entrances now trudge to the edge of campus, stepping over the boundary that divides gown from town.

Last week, Roseann McNeill, a senior from Drexel Hill, stood smoking a cigarette at East 15th and Melrose Streets, where dozens of discarded butts lay on the ground.

She called the tobacco ban “ridiculous.”

“I don’t think it’s really safe to have all the undergrads going off-campus, especially in Chester at night, just to have a cigarette,” she said.

A Widener staffer who stood nearby, puffing a smoke, said the rule was fine with him.

“When I didn’t smoke cigarettes, I didn’t want someone smoking a cigarette and blowing it at my face,” said Chris Lucchi, assistant locksmith and assistant fire marshal. “They want us off campus to do it. Fine.”

Graduate student Nathyn Smith had just arrived from Indiana when he lit up in front of another student.

“She kind of snapped at me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I’m from out of town!’ ”

His previous school, Ball State University, designated smoking areas on campus, and he said Widener should do the same.

“I don’t feel picked on, but people should have a choice,” Smith said. “If they want to smoke, so be it. That’s what college is all about, making choices.”

Widener framed its policy as being about health, not punishment – at least not right away.

An initial offense merits a warning. A second offense brings a $25 fine, a third $50. A fourth could mean unspecified penalties up to dismissal for students and faculty.

Who is responsible for enforcement? Everyone. Students, faculty, and staff are asked to respectfully address violators. If campus security spots an infraction, they may write an incident report.

As of Sept. 22, three reports had been filed, all involving first-time student offenders who received warnings.

Widener president James Harris said the school was not limiting students’ right to smoke but was definitely telling them where they can do it.

Smoking kills 443,000 people a year in the United States, secondhand smoke 49,000. Smokeless tobacco, or snuff, raises the risk of mouth and throat cancers.

“It’s almost irresponsible if you don’t bring that to the students’ attention,” Harris said.

Harris, who says he has never smoked beyond an occasional cigar, said he wanted Widener to lead, to commit itself to eliminating secondhand smoke, promoting healthy practices, and establishing a culture of wellness. The school also was getting complaints about the clouds emanating from groups of smokers outside buildings.

Nationally, scores of colleges have banned smoking or prohibited people from lighting up near doorways. Widener officials said the medical facts demanded a total ban.

“If tobacco is bad for you,” Harris said, “why would you tolerate one [product] and not the other?”

At the same time it says no to tobacco, Widener is offering free smoking-cessation programs to students, faculty, and staff. The classes cost the college money, but officials figure to reap long-term savings on health insurance.

“Widener cares about people’s health,” said Hillary Grumbine, a staff coordinator in residential life. “It’s great.”

The Widener campus is a green, 2,800-student enclave on the north side of Chester. The school embraces a civic mission, graduating nurses and social workers, and this year stood among the nation’s 25 most service-oriented colleges, as ranked by Newsweek/Daily Beast.

Widener’s leadership on tobacco takes it onto ground where only certain schools tread.

During the last two years, the number of colleges that ban all forms of tobacco has grown from 160 to 250, according to the American Lung Association of Oregon.

That is a 56 percent increase but still only 5.2 percent of the nation’s 4,788 degree-granting colleges. Almost all the schools that ban tobacco are community colleges or smaller, lesser-known institutions.

The University of Pennsylvania is not tobacco-free. Neither is Pennsylvania State University. The only other tobacco-free school in the state is Butler County Community College.

New Jersey has three tobaccoless schools, all community colleges.

Mike Townsend, spokesman for the American Lung Association in Washington, said big colleges often had multiple campuses, satellite offices, a medical center, and a fleet of vehicles, which can make a blanket policy unwieldy.

They also have more students, which could mean more resistance.

By comparison, smaller schools tend to be more autonomous.

Still, he said, a few big schools, including the University of Michigan and the University of Oregon, are moving ahead with tobacco-free policies.

Nationally, 83 percent of college students are nonsmokers. Of course, even nonsmokers have been known to inhale a certain psychoactive plant, banned at Widener under a separate policy on illegal drugs.

Officials adopted the no-tobacco rule in May 2009, then spent more than a year spreading word of the pending change through campus signs, e-mails, policy manuals, and website postings. The policy began in July 2010.

“This freshman class knows, if a student wanted to use tobacco products, Widener was not going to be a place where they could do that,” Harris said. “We’re a healthier campus because of it.”

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