By Rick Sobey
LOWELL -- Secondhand smoke clouds the campus, creating a hazardous environment for students as they walk between classes and to the dining hall, according to tobacco-free advocates at UMass Lowell. But if they have their way, cigarettes and all tobacco products will be a thing of the past at the university.
Backed by student leaders, administrators, fellow students and the American Cancer Society, a movement to make the campus tobacco-free is gaining some traction. Today, smoking is not permitted within 25 feet of any building on school grounds, but students at the forefront of the tobacco-free initiative seek to ban the use of all tobacco products on campus.
"We're trying to start a cultural movement here, so that someday smoking is not the norm on campus," said Katie Burnett, 21, a junior from Berkley. "There's many smokers around buildings and around the gazebo in South Campus, so secondhand smoke is really impacting every student.
"We want students to kick the habit, and we want to protect nonsmokers on campus," she added.
Burnett, along with students Amanda Robinson, Brittany Clark, Student Trustee Phil Geoffroy and Student Government Association President Andrew Ladd have been collecting signatures for the "Change is in the Air" campaign. They have collected 1,500 signatures so far and hope to double that number, with the goal of a tobacco-free campus by next September.
The student leaders will present the administration with the petition signatures and a proposal to enact a tobacco-free declaration on Dec. 2. Chancellor Marty Meehan has pledged his support to the group, which has committed to make available tobacco-cessation resources and services on campus, whether the ban takes effect or not.
"I'm very proud of our student government and students across the university for their activism on this issue, which is so important to all of us," Meehan said. "Smoking and secondhand smoke kills people every year, and students' health should never be in danger on campus."
As congressman, Meehan said that he fought "big tobacco" because cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco and exposure to secondhand smoke cause serious illness and premature death for hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, he emphasized.
"Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States," Meehan added. "I look forward to having a discussion with students, employees and faculty, and upon favorable reviews, implementing the tobacco-free policy across campus."
UMass Lowell would not be the first campus in Massachusetts to institute a tobacco ban. UMass Amherst, Salem State University and five other campuses in the state have gone 100 percent tobacco-free; Northeastern University, Harvard Medical School and eight other campuses are "smoke-free."
"Several universities have been pursuing these policies, and it's great to see the UMass Lowell students taking this issue head-on," said Marc Hymovitz, director of government relations and advocacy for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network. "They're showing that they don't want to become another tobacco-addicted generation.
"The tobacco industry is looking at students as customers because their longtime customers ultimately die from using their products, but these students will contribute significantly to a reduction in cancers and deaths," Hymovitz added.
Not everyone is on board with the proposed tobacco-free policy. Some UMass Lowell students, including freshman Matt Hebeisen, smoking a cigarette on Tuesday morning at the South Campus gazebo, said it would be "ridiculous" to ban smoking on campus.
"It's really not that hard to avoid people smoking on campus," said Hebeisen, 18, of Hampstead, N.H. "And it'd be a huge interruption to have to walk 10 minutes to go off campus for a cigarette. If I want to smoke late at night, right before bed, you think it's safe for me to walk off campus?"
Sean McCaffery, 21, a senior from Woburn, smoking a cigarette on Tuesday, said the university should implement designated smoking areas instead of a tobacco-free policy.
"Tobacco-free wouldn't solve the problem that they want to solve," said Matt Hannaford, 23, a junior from Reading, smoking on South Campus on Tuesday. "I went to Salem State a few years back, and when they added the policy, everyone would just walk to the closest public sidewalk to smoke."
Stephen Helfer, co-founder of the Cambridge Citizens for Smokers' Rights, also said that a tobacco ban abuses civil rights, "further ostracizing and alienating smokers."
Student Trustee Phil Geoffroy, who's advocating for the tobacco-free policy, said there's some concern that the policy would make UMass Lowell less attractive for prospective international students, who come from cultures where tobacco use is more acceptable. However, Geoffroy said the recruiting concern is baseless.
"Other schools have no real statistical indication of that happening," said Geoffroy, 20, a junior from Chelmsford. "We've been effective in communicating that message, along with the rest of our campaign."
In addition to petition signatures, tobacco-free advocates are trying to build momentum for their campaign with the Great American Smokeout on Nov. 21 at 6 p.m. in Alumni Hall. They will hand out T-shirts and have anti-tobacco speakers, less than two weeks before their policy pitch to administrators on Dec. 2.
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