Smoking Ban Continues to Stir Controversy

(published December 6, 2013)

The prospect of a tobacco-free campus, which has polarized the student body since its proposal this past November, remains under intensive deliberation. In order for the ban to take effect in 2016, it would require the support of both Student Senate and the administration. If Student Senate votes in favor of the proposal this March, and if the administration approves it in fall 2014, the ban will officially become campus policy.

Student Senate has made it known to the student body that it recognizes the complexity of the issue; several senators have even run on platforms in support of such a ban. Although the Senate has been heavily involved in the proposal, the legislature itself will be written not by members of the Senate, but by the Student Task Force.

Having the word “Student” in the task force’s title, however, is somewhat deceptive. Unlike working groups, the task force is not exclusive; students, senators, faculty, other members of the administration, and community members are all permitted to participate. Task forces, College Sophomore Senator Ziya Smallens explains, “are kind of like working groups, but are formed in the wake of certain pertinent issues. For example, there were a couple of task forces formed after the incidents of bias on March 4th.”

This specific task force, which is designated to address the tobacco ban, is in the midst of drafting the proposal. The task force has a great deal of independence, as the Senate is neither regulating the drafting process, nor are they necessarily endorsing the task forces recommendations.

According to Dean Eric Estes, it is imperative that Oberlin addresses the issue of smoking in some manner. “Oberlin College has become an environment that actively encourages smoking.  A troubling number of students report starting smoking or smoking more at Oberlin at statistically higher rates.” The purpose of this policy, then, would be to, “create an environment that encourages and provides resources for healthy alternatives to tobacco use.”

Even terming this policy as “tobacco-free,” versus a “ban,” indicates a lack of accord in the intentions of this policy. According to Dean Estes, “the idea of a tobacco free campus is to focus on education, outreach and supportive resources for cessation efforts.” President Krislov adds that this policy would not just be “regulation, but it’s education as well, and because we’re an educational institution, I think that’s something we focus on.”

According to the policy’s current draft, repercussions for students caught smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products would be more lenient than if said student were caught drinking. College sophomore and Senator Machmud Makhmudov elaborates that, “For the first few infractions, there’s no punitive action taken. Instead, you sit down with a counselor, talk about it, and what kind of options are available … basically telling people it’s not bad, but we as a campus are making a commitment to further x, y and z priorities, and so if you’d like to quit, we have these resources available.”

After approximately five additional infractions, the student would go through a judicial process similar to the one typically reserved for students who violate the alcohol policy. Such a procedure most often ends in students either receiving a citation from Safety and Security or having to pay a small fine.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the policy’s leniency is that no punitive action will be taken towards non-students. If the ban is instated, there will be no repercussions for faculty, administration, staff or other community members who are caught smoking on College property.

Some concern has been expressed over how Oberlin College chooses to define campus boundaries. Oberlin’s campus extends north to south, approximately from A-House to Philips Gymnasium. However, Oberlin College owns around 47% of land used by the Oberlin community, including Tappan Square, off-campus residential housing and the property surrounding Keep, Tank and Firelands. According to Makmudov, “those are not properties where this will be heavily endorsed.”

The exact borders of what is defined as “campus” is currently being discussed between the task force and City Council, but, given the relative leniency of this policy, it is unlikely to affect the controversy surrounding the No-Trespass Policy. “Since there are punitive actions taken, there is no way this would affect the no trespass list, because it’s not something that someone would get punished for,” said Makmudov.

If this new policy were to be implemented, there would be little reallocation of funds. College Senator and sophomore Aaron Appel said that the policy is designed to be educational, and to give students who want to quit smoking access to the appropriate resources.

Cessation products are, Appel added, “an important part of what’s moving forward. There are some cessation products that are made readily available, that are subsidized more, so people know about them,” and those would likely be available through Student Health or the Office of Wellness.

Funds for purchasing such products may come from a donor; it also “might come from a portion of last year’s $200 increase in Student Health fees,” said Makmudov, or from the Student Activity included in annual tuition. “The problem right now is estimating how many people are going to need that because once the culture changes, there aren’t going to be that many smokers, and if there are, how many are going to quit. We will need to know that before we know how much money we need to pull.” The number of cessation products to be purchased is still unclear, rendering it difficult to accurately projection the necessary expenditure.

Major concerns with smoking on campus pertain to issues of public health as well as issues of accessibility to cessation products. Because smoking is an addictive behavior, some predict that it might also tie into how much money will go towards the improvement of access to mental health services — another platform on which a considerable number of students ran for Senate this year. However, the extent to which these may or may not be related remains unclear.

That said, there has been a significant amount of support coming from the Oberlin community. Makmudov said that many of the task force’s meetings have been with community members, as this policy will ultimately affect the town of Oberlin than the current student body is on campus. “A lot of the businesses on Main Street have endorsed this because they’re tired of people smoking right outside their stores,” said Makmudov.

Despite the policy’s educational intentions, there is no doubt that this debate continues to stir controversy on campus. Smallens noted that, “the tobacco ban is one thing that would really affect the day-to-day life of each student at Oberlin. It addresses how we live our lives, what we have the ability to do. It is something that is inherently limiting, but to only think of it in that context is short-sighted.”

Said Smallens in regard to the policy’s current draft, “We’re at the point where since it’s still in formative stages, what students say can inform the actual policy,” so it is imperative that students give their input now to create a policy that students, like the administration, will favor.”

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