Although smoking rates among college students have decreased dramatically over the past 15 years, other forms of tobacco have grown in popularity. The University of Rhode Island is one of more than 100 colleges and universities nationwide working toward becoming totally tobacco-free, getting help from Rhode Island-based non-profit CVS Health Foundation, along with The American Cancer Society. This month Jim Hummel travels to ACS headquarters in Atlanta to learn more about the program- and to Kingston, where he finds out about what’s going on locally.
For more information about the Tobacco-Free Generation Campus Initiative click here.
The scene is repeated throughout the day in front of the main library on the University of Rhode Island campus: some students, taking a study break, gather a short distance from the front entrance and light up. Others are less conspicuous, using electronic cigarettes.
The picture, of course, is vastly different from what it was even 15 years ago, when an average one in four college students nationwide smoked. That number has decreased to 6 percent in 2017, but on any given day those who still smoke gather in front of the library or the student union.
That’s why URI has joined a program aimed at eliminating all tobacco use from hundreds of college and university campuses across the country. The American Cancer Society and The Truth Initiative, a Washington-based non-profit tobacco control organization are teaming up with the non-profit CVS Health Foundation to implement the Tobacco-Free Generation Campus Initiative.
Reynolds: ``With CVS being here (in Rhode Island) and them making the decision to pull tobacco out of their stores, it seemed like a natural thing for the University of Rhode Island to do.’’
Ellen Reynolds is director of Health Services at URI, one of 146 schools in the campus initiative program. URI is working to develop a tobacco-free policy over the next 15 months.
Reynolds: ``Our hope is to learn how many smokers we have between the faculty, staff and students, and to identify their willingness to look at cessation products for those that are smokers.’’
Why the focus on college and university campuses?
Bidisha Sinha is overseeing the program for the American Cancer Society
``Sinha: ``We know that 90 percent of smokers begin by the age of 18 and fully 99 (percent) begin by the age of 26.’’
The Rhode Island Spotlight traveled to the Cancer Society’s headquarters in Atlanta last month - and one of the participating colleges - to learn more about the campus program.
Sinha said while traditional smoking is down, other forms of tobacco like e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco and hookah are still popular with the college crowd, in an environment where young people are away from home and experimenting. That’s why the program focuses on eliminating all tobacco products from campuses.
Sinha: ``We also realize that students, if they’re vaping or they’re smoking e-cigarettes, that’s the gateway to smoking traditional cigarettes and so we really don’t want any of those things to be available on campus’’
Sinha notes that in 2011 only 500 campuses, out of 5,000 in the United States, were smoke-free. This fall the ACS reports 2,000 campuses are smoke-free and 1,700 tobacco-free.
Steward-Reid: ``And we really wanted to work with communities that had been targetted by big tobacco.’’
Cianti Stewart-Reid works for The Truth Initiative, which is working with 50 community colleges and 32 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. earned a bachelor’s degree.
Stewwart-Reid: ``In some African-American neighborhoods, 10 times the number of tobacco ads than non-African American communities - and so it’s not a coincidence then, that those communities that have this heavier advertising smoke at higher rates. It’s not a coincidence, it’s profiling. We ask the young people who participate in our campaigns to call that out. And so we’ll continue to get to those disparately-impacted communities to reach them with the messages that work in a way that’s culturally-competent and get the teens in those communities to reject tobacco.’’
Stewart-Reid knows firsthand. As an African-American student at the University of North Carolina in the early 2000s she began smoking - at the age of 20. Smoking on colleges campuses like UNC was a lot more prevalent then.
Steward-Reid: ``In, , 2000, when I startedsmoking, 23 percent of teens smoked, so a quarter of my peers were smoking. I don’t know that that would be the same today because only 6 percent are smoking. When tobacco is normal it might have seemed like the cool thing to do at the time.’’
She quit nine years after first picking up the habit in college.
Steward-Reid. ``And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to quit, but also the best decision I ever made. So I get how hard it is, it’s not easy at all. And so if you can get someone to reject tobacco when they’re young and never make that decision, it’s so much better.’’
In Rhode Island, Johnston & Wales University became the first, and so far only, institution of higher education to go totally tobacco-free campus-wide in July of 2016. A college spokeswoman said it took two years of preparation.
At URI, smoking is prohibited inside all university buildings and residences and smokers must be 20 feet from any of those buildings. A committee is in the early stages of coming up with a tobacco-free policy proposal.
Reynolds: ``It’s incredibly ambitious, but it’s absolutely how we are tackling this problem and why we want to partner with both the American Cancer Society and the CVS Health Foundation because we believe that we’re in the business of educating young people, and part of educating them is making them aware of health risks and trying to help them adopt really healthy behaviors early on, so those can continue throughout their life.’’
Flavin: ``When you come to college I think it’s more of a social type of thing. So If you see your friends doing it, it’s something you want to do.’’
Hailey Flavin, a senior from North Kingstown, is on the URI tobacco-free initiative committee. Flavin said she sees more smoking now than she did in high school, especially the use of e-cigarettes.
Hummel: ``Do you think people when they vape they think it’s not really smoking?’’
Flavin: ``I think there is a lot of confusion of the terminology and what is in those and how harmful it is to them as a person. I think that they just think it’s a cool thing, a cool trend and they’re not necessarily as concerned of what might happen in the long run in terms of addiction.’’
Reynolds says universities with an anti-tobacco message face competition for students’ attention.
Reynolds: ``That’s what the tobacco industry does, right? They need people to continue using their products so they do is they come up with new things every day and if you look on the market and walk in any store that sells these type of products you’ll see the packaging and the materials are geared toward young people because they’re looking to attract young people to use their products.’’
The CVS Health Foundation, the non-profit arm CVS Health, has committed $3.6 million to the campus initiative, part of its Be The First, a five-year $50 million program aimed at achieving the first tobacco-free generation. URI received a $20,000 grant from the foundation.
Sinha: `There is so much interest in this work, on campuses, you just have to find the right folks, You have to find the right leadership, or the student group or even a student or staff person who’s interested in this issue to lead the effort on campus. And it gets done.’’
Reynolds: ``We’re going to have people who are already opposed to the policy so we need as much buy-in as we can. And part of the process is marketing and communications and working with those visitors and others who come to the campus to see on the map where the university property is so they know where they are not allowed to smoke.’’
Hummel: ``What are you hoping to get out of this study, what would you like to see at the end of the road?
Flavin: ``I would like to see a healthier campus, a better living environment, community building aspect - I think this is a way for our whole campus to come together for a bigger cause than what all these individual entities might be standing for.//I think we all do have our health concerns in mind and that’s something we’ll take for the rest of our lives, so I think URI standing up for this would be huge and would be a way for us to be different than many other universities.’’
If they’re one of those ;that become addicted to tobacco they’re going to work much of their adult life to become un-addicted and to quit smoking so we want to help them not become addicted and this type of policy change may assist them in not doing that.’’
In Kingston Rhode Island - and Atlanta, Georgia, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.