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Local Column

Akst: A campuswide kick in the butt

A big shoe is dropping next week at Northern Illinois University, and I’m not talking about how much the state will chop from NIU’s annual budget allocation.

Starting Wednesday, all Illinois public colleges and universities will become smoke-free by state law. That law is the Smoke-Free Campus Act, which former Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law in 2014.

For nonsmokers like me, the new law is a breath of fresh air, and there is data to suggest that such laws really work. And they need to work: Despite the downward trend of smoking in America, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that in 2013, nearly 19 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds smoke.

Also, a study of two Indiana universities concluded in 2009 is cause for optimism. Two schools – Purdue University and Indiana University in Bloomington – were compared because of institutional similarities and because one school (Indiana) had a smoke-free policy, while the other (Purdue) did not.

Key findings: The percentage of students smoking at Indiana dropped by 3.7 percentage points during the study, while the smoking rate increased slightly at Purdue. Also, the number of cigarettes students reported smoking at Indiana decreased during the study but increased at Purdue.

Still, my gut tells me implementation, compliance and enforcement at NIU will all be ugly, but that’s nobody’s fault (well, maybe Quinn’s fault). As far as I can see, NIU’s smoke-free task force has done the best job it could under the circumstances, and I hope the whole university sees success, but basically ...

Law-schmaw: Smoking habits at NIU will change little because of the new law.

For one thing, the new law allows smoking in private vehicles on university property, so smokers coming and going in their own cars will do as they always have. An earlier version of the policy would have disallowed smoking on campus even in private vehicles, which in my view was unenforceable.

Also, NIU’s policy is “smoke-free,” which means “using and/or carrying any kind of lighted smoking materials,” according to policy language. That includes e-cigarettes. However, the American Lung Association recommends that campuses not just be smoke-free, but tobacco-free.

“Prohibiting only cigarette smoking may lead to the unintended consequence of increased use of ‘smokeless tobacco’ products, which are being heavily marketed by the tobacco industry to young adults and others for use in settings where smoking is not allowed,” the ALA says.

NIU doesn’t have bigger fish to fry. There is no bigger fish than the health of our students, even considering that part of college is accepting responsibility for one’s actions. But given budget woes, efforts to recruit and retain students, program prioritization, and probably a dozen other factors I can’t even verbalize right now, we have too many fish to fry. I think we’re stretched too thin to create and sustain a campuswide tobacco-free environment.

Students who smoke, by and large, simply won’t be significantly deterred by a law. College represents the biggest opportunity in life to challenge authority.

It’s not just mindset. It’s easy to understand why smoking isn’t allowed in restaurants. A restaurant is a closed-in space. But many college campuses are so open and airy that smoking outdoors while walking treelined paths to a building a half-mile away doesn’t seem like smoking is breaking a rule.

For generations, smokers have been told by nonsmokers to go outside. Well, they’re outside.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as executive secretary for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association. Learn more about NINA at http://ninaonline.org. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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