Tobacco-Free UNR Still A Work In Progress

Nov 4, 2015

A "Tobacco Free" sticker attached to an ashtray promotes the University of Nevada, Reno's recent tobacco policy changes.
Credit Marcus Lavergne

This semester, the University of Nevada, Reno officially became known as a “tobacco-free campus”. But, take a walk around the school, and you’re likely to still find students lighting up. Reno Public Radio’s Marcus Lavergne explores why.

Over the summer, UNR President Marc Johnson made headlines as the school prepared for its transition into the only tobacco- free campus in Nevada. Now that the policy's in effect, some students remain skeptical and confused:

“I think that people should be allowed to use tobacco if they want to,"  Aaron Dart said. "There should be regulated areas where they can do it, not a full-out ban throughout campus. To each is their own.”

“It’s very good intentioned to make the campus a no-tobacco and non-smoking campus but it’s a non-realistic goal to enforce it," Samantha Palacios said. "Unless someone comes up to stop them or there’s someone around the corner then there’s no way and frankly that would just be a waste of resources.”

“I’ve always smoked on campus, I try to get out of the way," Dylan Hipsley said. "There’s a lot of areas on campus where most of the smokers go to, I’d never want to bother anyone with it. A lot of my friends that don’t smoke, they’ve never had a problem with it. They said they’ve never experienced being uncomfortable with people smoking near them.”

All three are UNR students who regularly see their peers smoking as they hustle from class to class. White signs with Nevada’s traditional blue lettering have been posted around campus to promote the new policy, but an ashtray might not be far off.

That’s because the initiative is more of an awareness and wellness campaign than a full-on tobacco ban. Adam Garcia is UNR’s police chief. He said a strict crackdown on campus would require a change in state law. Advocates tried to do that last spring with a bill that would allow the Nevada System of Higher Education to restrict campus tobacco use. Ultimately, law makers shut it down.

“Smoking is still one of those vices that is very socially acceptable in our society,” Garcia said. “To have a ban, you would have to deal with the cigarette manufacturers and others who would want to promote it.”

Garcia who's weary of infringing on people’s rights, suggests that police involvement could do more harm than good for both the public and police department. Even if the law were to change Garcia says enforcing it would pose a challenge:

“Do we issue citations? Do we arrest people? What do we do with repeat offenders? All of those questions have to be answered.” 

Enid Jennings is with UNR’s Student Health Center and leads the tobacco-free initiative. According to her, the university never intended for the policy to be a “ban” in the first place, but instead, a strategy to help people lead healthier lives. 

In order for this initiative to work, Jennings said campus community members have to be the main enforcers.

“Asking people to feel comfortable spreading information about the initiative is a key thing,” Jennings said.” just letting people nicely know that we are a tobacco free university and that we’d like them to not use tobacco here on campus.”

Jennings said the university modeled its policy after numerous other schools. In fact, more than 1,500 campuses across the nation have gone smoke free in the past 15 years.

That’s according to Bronson Frick, the associate director for Americans for non-smokers rights, the nation’s leading lobbyist for nonsmoking legislation.

“The fact that there are so many different colleges as part of this trend shows that these policies are successful,” Frick said. “They’re popular, people like them. Young people today are increasingly growing up in smoke free environments and don’t necessarily want to go to school in an environment surrounded by second hand smoke.”

The movement to make campuses tobacco-free is still relatively new, which is why the American Lung Association doesn't have conclusive data on its overall effectiveness. Frankie Vigil directs Nevada's branch of the Association and is partnering with UNR on this initiative. According to her, they do know it’s critical to aim prevention efforts at young adults.

“99 percent of people that do smoke started smoking by the age of 26,” Vigil said. “We know that if we can help prevent picking up that habit by the age of 26, we have a 99 percent chance that they’re never going to be smokers, which is the best thing you can possibly do for your health.”

Although completely stamping out smoking at UNR may not be feasible anytime soon, Vigil said their goal, really, is to make tobacco-free lifestyles second nature.