Should VCU ban smoking on Richmond campus?

RICHMOND, Va. — With campuses near the Capitol and bordering Monroe Park, Virginia Commonwealth University casts a shadow over the heart of downtown Richmond.

Standing out among the campus buildings is the Altria Theater – bearing the name of the tobacco giant, formerly called Philip Morris, that moved its headquarters to Richmond 10 years ago.

In 2015, about 17 percent of adults in Virginia smoked cigarettes – just below the national average – according to the Truth Initiative for Inspiring Tobacco-Free Lives.

To reduce cigarette smoking on university grounds, students, and school officials nationwide have adopted policies that make it difficult to light up on campus. VCU students are weighing in on the issue.

In 2010, the VCU Medical Center, also known as the Medical College of Virginia, adopted a non-smoking policy that prohibits anyone from smoking on that campus north of the state Capitol.

“As a strong national leader in the fight against cancer, VCU and the VCU Health System play essential leadership roles in ensuring the health of our communities and our Commonwealth,” Michael Rao, president of VCU and the VCU Health System, said in a press release at the time. “Our CleanAIR/Quality Care initiative is a key step in ensuring that the environment of our health sciences campus supports our mission through better health.”

The CleanAIR/Quality Care initiative includes resources available to everyone visiting or working on the MCV campus, providing education, treatment, plans for quitting tobacco use and products to ease nicotine cravings.

A recent informal poll posted on VCU’s internal website portal and various VCU-related Facebook groups asked if VCU students, faculty and staff would support a similar policy for the Monroe Park Campus, which houses most of the university’s undergraduate programs. Of nearly 1,500 votes, 68 percent were in favor of adopting a non-smoking policy.

“It would encourage people to stop smoking and also limit secondhand smoke exposure,” said Shea Hofmann, a VCU sophomore who voted in favor of banning smoking on campus.

“I personally don’t like the smell of cigarettes,” said Triniti Nevers, a recent transfer student who also voted for a non-smoking policy.

However, VCU doesn’t have proper authority to ban smoking outright.

The university would first need approval from the General Assembly. Without legislative approval of a law banning tobacco use on campus grounds, VCU law enforcement can do little to prevent people from using tobacco products.

A private security company on VCU’s medical campus is responsible for managing the MCV Campus non-smoking policy, according to Corey Byers, public information officer for VCU Public Affairs and the VCU Police Department.

“If someone on the MCV campus were to refuse to follow direction from a private security officer, they may be subject to arrest for trespassing by VCU Police,” Byers said.

VCU’s consideration of a no-smoking policy on its Monroe Park campus represents a nationwide trend.

Michigan State University, for example, adopted a tobacco-free ordinance in 2015; those who violate the policy could be fined $150.

At least 2,160 U.S. universities – about half of all American universities – have a 100 percent smoke-free campus, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Of those campuses, 84 percent are 100 percent tobacco-free, 80 percent prohibit e-cigarette use, 41 percent prohibit hookah use, and 13 percent prohibit smoking and/or vaping marijuana.

Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa and Louisiana are among the states that have laws requiring 100 percent smoke-free campuses. California, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina have the most smoke-free campuses.

The Truth Initiative for Inspiring Tobacco-Free Lives says such policies can have three benefits. They can:

  • Reduce tobacco use among young adults.
  • Create opportunities to educate students about tobacco.
  • Provide economic and environmental benefits by cutting down on maintenance costs for cigarette cleanup.

Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, adopted a tobacco-free policy that took effect in 2014.

The goal was to make students who do not smoke feel more comfortable walking around campus and to help the environment, according to the school’s board of trustees.

Martha Hunn, the university’s associate vice president for communication, said, “Violation of the policy can result in disciplinary action for employees who refuse to comply. Students who violate the policy and refuse to comply are referred to the appropriate area within the division of student affairs.”

In the informal poll, Avonelle Cantrell, who recently transferred from Coastal Carolina University to VCU, voted against having a non-smoking policy on the Monroe Park Campus. He said such a policy would be difficult to enforce.

“I think it would just be hard for such a large university to get the people who do smoke on campus to just stop,” Cantrell said. “People would try to sneak one or get around it.”

By Chelsea Jackson and Jessica Wetzler /Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.