Magazine Preview: The Smoking Ban

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Next week the student councils will be sending a survey out to the student body, to gather opinion on the proposed campus smoking ban. To provide a little background, tonight we present senior editor Adam Kuerbitz’s feature on the ban, from the new issue of the
Blue and White.

The cigarette break has changed drastically in the past decade: What was once nothing more than a courtesy to anti-smoking relatives—or even just a good excuse to leave a bad party—has become a mandatory exodus. Since 2003, when New York State banned indoor smoking, a culture of urban smokers has developed under the city’s awnings and streetlights. Smokers at Columbia are no different: Friendships begin around ashtrays outside John Jay and Carman and continue during study breaks and chance meetings outside Butler and Lerner. Last month though, New York City officials led by Michael Bloomberg suggested banning smoking at all public parks and beaches.

Smoking is similarly under fire at Columbia, as the University considers a ban on lighting up inside the Morningside campus. The most recent proposal drafted by the administration prohibits smoking within the gates of the Morningside campus, including the bridge over Amsterdam Avenue and the areas around Wien Hall, the Law School, and the School of International and Public Affairs. But the movement has been tempered by bureaucratic mismanagement, confusion within student government groups, and a dearth of information about whether a smoking ban is even a policy Columbia students want implemented.

The idea of a smoking ban gathered steam in the summer of 2008, when New York State banned smoking in all residential college dormitories. At the time, the University went back and reviewed its own policies on tobacco use on campus. Administration officials realized that there were five separate documents regarding tobacco use on the Morningside campus, some of which were inconsistent with the stipulations of the new law. The state’s ban included different regulations for mixed residential buildings—that is, residences home to undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members—in addition to specifications concerning the size of non-smoking zones outside the main doors of various buildings. Given the impending state law, administration members thought an overhaul of the University’s tobacco policy was in order. Scott Wright, Vice President of Campus Services, formed a Tobacco Work Group that autumn to determine the most feasible ways the University could comply with the law, and asked Michael McNeil, Interim Director at the Alice Health Promotion Program, to chair it.

“The question, really, that got raised was, ‘Does it prompt us to think about smoking in the outdoor spaces since the indoor spaces basically are now governed by law?’” says Wright. “It’s less of a question of ‘What do people want?’ and rather [one of] compliance.” The Work Group—which, when it was first created, included professors, building managers, members of the campus grounds crew, and one student representative—tried “really just to review our current documents, review the state of the issue as it applies to higher education in the U.S., and then make some recommendations,” says McNeil.

The Work Group initially proposed expanding smoking restrictions from all campus buildings and certain zones outside campus buildings to include the entire area within campus gates. They considered the possibility of creating smoking areas on campus, but they ultimately concluded that Columbia’s concentrated geographical layout made on-campus smoking areas impractical. McNeil explains, “If you went, say, 50 feet from some buildings, you’re within 50 feet of another building. So that would make that space a de facto prohibited zone.” Before submitting their initial proposal to Wright, the Work Group sought to gather more student input.

The Group held four open-forum sessions in Lerner and set up an online feedback process where students, faculty, and staff could voice their opinions on the proposal without voting one way or another. The online poll garnered a paltry 211 responses, 56% of which were in favor of a ban. The open fora, which coincided with final exam preparation during the last week of April, saw a total attendance of three people. But despite the poor turnout, the Work Group submitted a proposal to Wright that suggested instituting a smoking ban on the Morningside campus. “I looked at the proposal,” says Wright, “and said, ‘I can’t really do anything with this until you get me a much, much, much greater sampling of Columbia opinion.’ On all three levels—faculty, staff, and students—it was not even close. I mean we’re talking about a couple dozen responses. I would think we’d want a couple thousand.”

Columbia College Class of 2011 President Learned Foote agrees with Wright’s conclusion that any suggestion offered by the Work Group should be informed by a greater proportion of the Columbia population. “We do not believe that student opinion has been accurately collected at this point. The next step in this process is collecting student opinion in a more accurate and unbiased way.” McNeil similarly acknowledges the Work Group does not have the information it needs to make a formal recommendation, and stresses that the Group’s task is not yet finished. “We recognize there are some limitations to our previous efforts” he says, “and we don’t want to shortchange the campus community.”

Like the much of the student body, the new student council members were caught off-guard when they learned of the Work Group’s proposal last spring. Immediately, the councils expressed their strong opposition to the plan. At the end of last year, the Columbia College Student Council voted almost unanimously against the smoking ban on the grounds that the University had no right to impose these regulations on individual behavior. Council President Sue Yang, CC ’10, joined the Work Group during the spring, along with Foote, CC 2011 Vice-President Sean Udell, and later, CCSC Vice-President for Policy Sarah Weiss, who joined last summer. Yang characterizes CCSC’s participation in the process by pointing out that “originally [the administration] had been thinking about enforcing it this year, starting Fall 2009—so right now. However, after talking with a lot of students they decided against it. They’ve been pretty good about trying to engage students.”

While Columbia will avoid a ban this fall, the question remains as to why the Work Group initially proposed a campus-wide ban without strong student support. Current members of student council believe that biased student representation on the Work Group led to a skewed idea of student opinion. Although administrators were allowed to invite students to join in the discussion, last year’s CCSC Vice-President of Policy, Adil Ahmed, CC ’09, was the only student representing the councils within the Work Group last year. Sean Udell believes that Ahmed was supporting the smoking ban without conferring with the rest of the council. “It was really Adil who was at the Work Group and it was only Adil’s opinion, but the Work Group interpreted it as CCSC’s opinion,” says Udell. McNeil confirms that Ahmed’s vote was part of the unanimous decision to propose the ban to Wright. “They’re confused why CCSC has seemed to sort of switch up their stance on this,” says Udell.

Ahmed tells an entirely different story. He says he was working with the administration on alcohol policy and the administration reached out to him about representing student interest on the Tobacco Work Group. “I was like, ‘Yeah, students will definitely have an interest in this,’ so I jumped right on that too,” says Ahmed, who says he brought up the Work Group’s deliberations at student council meetings numerous times. “No one on student council wanted to take initiative on it because they were afraid of not being reelected the next year.”

Last year’s CCSC President, George Krebs, CC ’09, confirms that Ahmed did engage the council in smoking ban discussions. “We were up to speed,” he says. “It wasn’t as though he gave us a two-minute update, glossed over it, and then considered his own opinions. You know, we had lengthy debates about the smoking ban during our council meetings where we discussed a lot of the issues at length and, from what I understood, he took those back.” Sue Yang, however, does not remember the smoking ban coming up in meetings until the end of the year. “I don’t think we think he was purposefully abusing power or anything like that. But I think it is a lesson to be learned in transparency too.”

To that end, the administration is working with the student councils to conduct a second, more scientific poll of 1,000 students to be chosen proportionately within the various schools’ populations. The structure of the poll, as well as its publicity and timing, are being designed to remedy the flaws in last semester’s feedback sessions that failed to poll community members in a statistically significant way. “We’d really like to engage also the other councils, so like the business school, the architecture school, a lot of the grad schools who share this very campus with us. But of course, engage more of our own students because we are the residents here,” says Yang. Council members hope the survey will be conducted sometime in October. Once it is completed, the council plans to present the results to the Work Group in the hope that they will lead to a more informed decision.

Smoking is already prohibited at the medical center, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Barnard, which successfully established a similar ban in Spring 2007. Barnard, however, created two designated smoking areas on campus in response to student concerns about safety. According to Katie Palillo, Barnard Student Government Association President, “Student government and a number of individuals came forth and said that not being able to smoke on their campus was inconvenient and frankly not safe if they had to go out at midnight and stand outside of our gates to smoke.” Palillo doesn’t think the Barnard ban is a significant inconvenience mostly because so few Barnard students are habitual smokers. Even so, she admits that the ban is difficult to enforce.

Safety has not been mentioned as an obstacle to the smoking ban at Columbia. However, one point of contention among smokers and non-smokers alike is the congestion the ban would create outside the University gates. Forcing smokers in Butler, Carman, and John Jay onto 114th Street, opponents claim, would exacerbate the traffic problem already created by fraternities and dorms. Others have said that the farmers’ market would be negatively affected by the presence of smokers from Lerner, Furnald, and other buildings on the west side of campus congregating on Broadway. But McNeil thinks that designating smoking areas on the sidewalks will channel smokers away from already congested areas. He points out that because the University maintains the sidewalks, it has the legal authority to create designated smoking areas and install ashtrays there. Smokers walking down the street will not be in violation when they are outside of a sidewalk zone, but smokers standing outside of a zone will be asked to move.

McNeil says he realizes the objections this policy could raise among residents of the neighborhood. “We also recognize that before a formal set of recommendations can take place, we need to have conversations with the businesses in the area and with non-Columbia affiliated residents of the Morningside Heights area.” Ten locations have been preliminarily identified, but discussions with locals have not yet begun. Wright acknowledges the problem, but thinks it will lessen over time. “The more restricted you make accessing smoking spaces, the more likely people are to quit,” he says. If the expanded restrictions become official policy, Wright plans to push for increased publicity for Health Services’ tobacco cessation program.

As for the future, Wright has asked the Work Group to make a formal set of recommendations before the end of the academic year, but how this recommendation will translate to official University policy is unknown. Wright is unsure if the authority to move forward with the recommendation lies with the executive vice-presidents of facilities and administrative and student services or possibly another group. “Right now I just don’t know what the answer to that is. Nobody’s ever asked a question like this,” he says. But Wright does know that whatever the Work Group does suggest, it’s crucial that it accurately reflect the opinion of the entire community. McNeil, for his part, hopes that the Work Group is able to help draft a sensible, consistent campus-wide tobacco policy, whatever that may be. Although, he qualifies, “You’re most successful when no one is happy.”

– Adam Kuerbitz, illustrations by Stephen Davan and Liz Lee

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  1. Hooah  

    "Smoking is...under fire" LOVE IT!

    Also, of course it should be banned. Duh.

  2. Typical

    Butthurt smokers bitching about how they are inconvenienced in the pursuit of the habit they're aware is killing them. I fortunately wised up fast and quit, but even when I did smoke I never bitched about having to move...even though smokers of course don't mind it, smoking to non-smokers is obnoxious and gross.

    To all smokers: quit. Just do it. If the prospect of emphysema in fifty years isn't enough to persuade you (even though it should be), you're spending a shitload of money on it (especially here) and it is actually causing you more stress than if you were a nonsmoker--biologically, financially, all kinds of ways.

    My tips: wait until a low stress period (winter break), set a date and stick to it, drink shitloads of water, chew lots of gum, stay busy and avoid triggers. You can do it!

  3. reservations...

    I don't know about this. Personally, I absolutely loathe second-hand smoke, but I don't think it's entirely fair to completely deny smokers the ability to satisfy their addiction anywhere. And frankly, some of the billowy discharges emitted by the smokestacks on top of certain buildings may, for all we know, be equally carcinogenic. It's fair to confine smoking to very limited areas, I say-- not quite so fair to insist that all smokers immediately go cold turkey or face liabilities.

  4. W I E N  


    Like how Austrians spell the name of their capital city. Wien. WIEN.

    It's WIEN, Columbia. WIEN.

  5. seniiorita  

    i am a nonsmoker.

    banning outdoor smoking on campus is the most monumentally idiotic thing i've heard proposed in my five academic years on campus. "hai guyz, why don't we clog every gateway onto the campus with human obstacles and concentrated clouds of smoke? it'll be ugly, smelly, and an impediment to movement of people and freight! and what a GREAT way to make an impression on prospies!

    it's way better than the alternative: not touching something that's not broken in the first place!

    people smoke. most of them are considerate. call out the assholes and leave the rest of them alone. this is amurrica, land of the free to die from smoking-related illness.

    • Yes, but  

      people should also be free to live without having to inhale second-hand smoke. If smoking didn't harm other people, then fine...do it wherever the hell you want. The rest of us couldn't give a damn about you dying in a few decades from lung cancer. But smoking DOES harm others, and therefore, Columbia certainly does have the right to ban it from campus.

      • yes yes, but  

        you're still going to have to inhale the secondhand smoke. Every time you enter and leave campus, because all the smokers will congregate at the gates.

        If you really want to reduce exposure, create designated smoking areas that are not near building entrances (which would violate state law), rather than ban all smoking anywhere on campus.

  6. person  

    i'm a smoker, and frankly don't give a shit about this ban. it will most likely be very casually enforced...but even if it is, it's never a far walk to the street.

  7. people

    why is it so difficult to understand? An individual's actions are tolerated so long as it does not badly affect others. You can drink but will be punished if you hurt people while under the influence. You can smoke, so long as your 2nd hand smoke doesn't hurt others. Go smoke somewhere else. This is why it is banned in NY state and soon parks. I hate walking out/in a building on campus and have to inhale the disgusting air. Or while I'm walking to a class have to breathe the breath of cigarette smoke of the person walking in front of me. That's disgusting. We all have to piss but I'm not gonna take a piss on Low steps just to relieve my stress over CU....come on

    • ...  

      if you're that uptight about what you breathe, what exactly do you think you're doing in the carcinogenic center of the universe that is new york city.

      whether it's the decades old lead paint on the walls, ancient air handling units, rusted over steam pipes, asbestos or high carbon particulate count from vehicle exhaust, you live in a place that has one of the highest concentrations of complete crap in the air in the whole country.

      sure, a smoking ban makes sense as a way to try to get people to quit, but anybody who claims it's for second hand health reasons who lives in new york city is completely insane.

    • you know what?

      we should ban ugly people. most of you undergrads are quite repulsive looking, and it's causing the rest of us pretty people stress. i hate walking out of a building and seeing a wide array of the ugly. it's disgusting. if your ugliness didn't affect others, that would be fine, but your repugnant mug is causing others psychological stress.

      on a serious note: if you're so worried about the air you're breathing, you should have went to Brown.

  8. thank you  

    Someone needed to say that!

  9. bad consequences

    i agree very much with 7. everyone keeps talking about how bad secondhand smoke is, but i hope you guys realize all the ban would do is force more people to inhale the smoke. not only would columbia students have to inhale it, but also people who actually live in morningside heights.

    further, right now, people can smoke anywhere outside, so at least the smoke has a possibility of being diffused. however, if we enact the ban, all the smoke will just concentrate at specific areas, making those areas terrible.

    it's simple weighing. right now, only columbia students get secondhand smoke. after the ban, everyone including columbia students get secondhand smoke, PLUS it makes it all concentrated so the gates look like shit to everyone passing, and it ends up looking like columbia students smoke a shit load to passerbyers and visitors.

    plus, who the hell is going to enforce this ban? what would actually happen? public safety would be like yo, cut that out. by the time they do that though, the smoker will probably be halfway done and just not care, or smoke another one outside the gate. doesn't solve anything. if we don't enforce the 20 feet away from a dorm rule, how would we enforce this?

    also, if ashtrays are gone, people might throw butts on the sidewalk (since inevitably people are going to break the rule).

    as another unintended consequence that would occur, i think this would increase the number of people smoking inside the dorms, since some might be too lazy to walk outside of campus rather than just outside the dorm.

    come on people, i dont smoke, and i think smokers are idiots who are killing themselves, but this ban would just make life worse for everyone. don't be so selfish and think OMG I'M BREATHING SECOND HAND SMOKE! think about it and realize that not only would you STILL breathe in second hand smoke, but you would also cause residents of morningside to get second hand smoke.

    a lot of the complaint seems to just be about walking out of butler with smoke. why not just ban the butler vicinity or other high traffic areas? make multiple on campus areas with little traffic.

    this ban blows. ban the ban.

    back to cc.

    • Your CC Professor  

      Your thesis was underdeveloped. The juxtaposition of OMG with all caps was forced at best. And 'people of morningside Heights' is an oxymoron because they don't actually count as people.
      Haha, just kidding, I don't actually read any of you little shit's papers. A-

    • actually  

      Smoking IS already banned outside Butler and any dorm - not just by Columbia policy, but by New York state law.

      And yeah. We do a terrific job of enforcing that, huh?

      • same as 16

        wow, didnt know that. if thats the case, then the ban surely wont work, and if it does, it'll suck.

        i think that rather than trying to create a useless ban, we should encourage smokers to actually obey the laws, so here's my short attempt.

        you guys already have a bad rep and people get angry at you. nobody is taking your right to smoke away, but at least have some decency to follow existing rules (if they do exist like 18 said). when you don't, you are only hurting yourself by pissing people off, and you supercharge the want to kick you guys out of campus (which would be bad, as earlier stated). so try to smoke somewhere with less traffic and obey the 20ft from dorm laws and stuff.

  10. butler?  

    girl taken out with a stretcher?

  11. I just don't get it  

    Dear Smokers,


    Why do you smoke? Is it just to be difficult? Because, honestly, I don't understand.

    In elementary school DARE programs and such we were all taught that people would try to get us to smoke to look cool. But as far as I can tell, smokers are pretty anti-conformity, so why the hell would you conform to something obnoxious and lethal that doesn't even get you that high? There are so many more interesting ways to conform or not conform.

    And how do you justify spending the money? Have you thought of how much good that money could do the world instead of feeding your addiction and fattening the tobacco industry? Have you thought about how much your deteriorating lungs, liver, and arteries will cost all of us in the future? Yet most of you probably still advocate for universal health care?

    I'm all about acceptance of people's choice to love whom they want to love, worship or not worship any higher power, do what they want to do for a living, eat what they want to eat, etc. etc. . . But those things have clear benefits for the people making the choices and for the world. I don't see how smoking should fall into the category of life choices immune to outside judgment.

    Why do I have to be accepting of your choice to blow toxins in my face every time I try to go into my dorm or the library? What about that is at all deserving of respect or tolerance? Why should I have to deal with your choice to take your health for granted?

    This is not to say that a smoking ban on campus is a great idea or would necessarily even work. I will probably vote against it. I'm really just trying to wrap my head around why SO MANY members of our generation seem to think lighting up is such a great idea.

    Explain yourselves.

    A concerned peer

    PS: At the very least . . . STOP SMOKING IN YOUR DORM ROOM. It's a fire hazard, and it's gross. I don't care if it's raining. I don't care if it's snowing. Please go outside and deal with the consequences of your own life choices.

    • similarly concerned  

      smoking is relaxing and helps you mind your own business.

      i suggest you light up.

    • holier than thou  

      Why is everything always so polarized? Does it ever occur to anyone that if it wasn't enjoyable, for whatever reason, that people wouldn't do it? Further, does it not occur that that enjoyability is enough for someone to continue to smoke despite the health risks? No, because if you smoke, you're addicted. People are too obsessed with defraying blame from individual choice and will to chemical dependency and addiction.

      That being said, hold your breath. I smoke, and even I occasionally hold my breath when passing by someone smoking. Sometimes I don't want to smell it or breathe it and I am of a sufficient aerobic fitness level to hold my breath and walk past the offensive smell. shockingly, it's quite easy and at most i'm inconvenienced for 5 seconds. This isn't to say that people should smoke right outside of buildings, but even when they do, it isn't that hard to avoid it. You won't be able to avoid it when they're out on the sidewalk. And public safety won't even enforce it within the gates if the ban passes anyway.

      I should get a pipe...

    • also  

      1. DARE used scare tactics and peer pressure to beat into you that smoking isn't as cool as they say it is. They forgot to tell you that nicotine is a great stimulant. Also, they forgot to tell you that when we turned 18 and could legally purchase tobacco, it really wasn't about looking cool and non-conformist anymore.

      2. How do you justify any money you spend? How do you justify spending someone's 50k + expenses every year to go to school where you argue about smoking bans instead of going to third world countries and actually helping the people you're talking about. Oh by the way, most of them are smokers too, don't let the smell get in the way of your heart for them, they might be able to tell.

      3. If I get really really fat, and then go on welfare, and then get on medicare, then you also have to deal with my personal health choices, and you can't hold your breath, my bills are going to be paid for by your taxes.

      4. It isn't our generation. In fact, i'd say that our generation smokes a lot less. Once again, maybe people smoke because it's enjoyable. I don't think the first smokers of tobacco were concerned with peer pressure or looking cool at the pow wow or the town square...

    • ...  

      what makes you think that anyone is asking for your respect or tolerance? why should i be accepting of your choice to push your beliefs on others?

    • i smoke  

      because people like you


  12. gingers  

    we should ban them too, i'm just saying

  13. blah  

    I could care less about second hand smoke, I just wish I could figure out why smokers litter?! Smoke away if you want, but would it really kill you to throw away your cigarette butts????

  14. Harmony Hunter  

    where's harmony


    I am glad that there is a cheeseburger ban! I am sick of coming onto the quad and having to deal with the smell and sight of people stuffing their faces with this shit! Don't you people realize the health risks of your life choice? Don't realize the money you are wasting on this? You are harming yourselves and making the rest of us who don't eat cheeseburgers suffer! Shame on you and your decision. I am appalled that they haven't banned it yet and horrified the government hasn't started putting people in jail for this!!!

  16. yes

    there's no such thing as second-hand smoke (in terms of health risk) outdoors either, except for the inconvenience/annoyance factor.

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