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