Montgomery College Snuffs Out Smoking

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 1, 2008

First, smokers had to move outside the building. Then it was 25 feet from the building entrance. Now it has come to this: Starting today, Montgomery College is banning tobacco anywhere on campus -- inside or outside.

The community college is one of a growing number of campuses nationwide taking a hard line on tobacco, signaling a broader cultural shift. No more professors lighting up pipes in their offices, no cigarettes sold in stores, no students chewing tobacco while watching football games.

Reactions from smokers ranged from stunned to furious -- and often unprintable.

"Outside?" gasped Isaac Kim, who's about to start pre-pharmacy classes at the Silver Spring/Takoma Park campus. "Do they have the right to do that?"

But many were delighted when they saw banners trumpeting the rule, which they view as a sign of the positive influence that colleges can have in protecting students and employees from exposure to smoke, promoting healthier habits and encouraging the downward trend in the numbers of young smokers.

"I think it's great," said Monica Brown, a nursing student from Silver Spring. "I don't like the way smoke gets in my hair and my clothes. And I worry about the health risk."

More than 130 campuses nationwide have gone smoke-free, most commonly medical schools and community colleges, reports the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation.

About 60,000 students take classes at Montgomery College, which apparently is the first Washington area college to ban tobacco. Most local universities do not allow smoking in buildings, including dorms, and require smokers to stand a certain distance from entrances.

"Almost certainly within five years, virtually all college campuses will be smoke-free," said John Banzhaf, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University and executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, who pushed GW to ban smoking indoors. (It did but resisted his attempt in 2006 to eliminate smoking outdoors as well.)

Michael J. McFadden, a smokers' rights advocate, said he would not argue that smoking is unhealthful for the smoker. But he said the idea of cigarette smoke outside affecting others' health borders on craziness.

"Whatever exposure to 'poisons and particulates' might occur from such contact is dwarfed by the exposures to whatever pollutants waft over the campus from any of the school's parking lots or nearby roads," he wrote in an e-mail.

Some see the ban as a step too far -- a punitive and unfair restriction on something that should be a matter of personal choice. Chewing tobacco, for example, isn't a danger to anyone other than the chewer.

But Karlynn BrintzenhofeSzoc, an associate professor at Catholic University and a clinical social worker who helps people with lung, throat and mouth cancers, said: "I don't think there are any unfair restrictions on choices around tobacco use.

"We have restrictions on how our water has to be cleaned, how our meat has to processed. . . . Putting a restriction on chewing tobacco, which we know is carcinogenic and causes really bad cancers . . . I'd love to see this happen in more schools," she said.

According to the fall 2007 National College Health Assessment, about 19 percent of college students smoked a cigarette in the previous 30 days.

At Georgetown, the percentage of students who said they had smoked one or more days in the past month declined from 16 percent in 2004 to 14 percent in 2008. At the University of Virginia, the figure was about 38 percent a decade ago; this year it was under 19 percent.

At the University of Maryland, the rate is dropping, too, to about 15 percent, with the biggest changes among people who smoked daily. Students today are used to restrictions on smoking, from planes to classrooms to restaurants. And they have been hearing since childhood that their health could be affected by others' smoke.

At U-Md., Kelly Kesler, assistant director of health promotions, said she noticed a real difference in campus culture when she returned to her job after five years away: fewer people smoking outside buildings, tobacco products no longer sold in the convenience store, students more likely to ask someone not to smoke inside, and smokers more conscious that their habit might annoy others.

It was students who started the push at GW to make dorms smoke-free. And when U-Va. officials asked in a survey whether students would like smoke-free restaurants near campus, 40 percent of the smokers supported the idea; less than 20 percent strongly disagreed.

Montgomery College officials began talking about restrictions in 2001 when they received money from the Maryland Cigarette Restitution Fund Program to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking, said Judy Ackerman, the vice president and provost of the Rockville campus. In 2005, it barred smoking within 25 feet of building entrances.

It would have been more difficult to ban it then, Ackerman said; it took a while for people to get used to the idea. But the rule they had was tricky. Some buildings are 56 feet apart -- leaving, in effect, a skinny, invisible smoking area in between.

This one's simple: No tobacco. Period.

And yes, employees could ultimately be fired or students kicked out if they kept ignoring the rule.

Temporary employees -- "healthy campus advocates" -- are being hired to wander about and remind people of the new rule. "They're being trained to do this with calmness and a sense of humor," Ackerman said.

Some students predicted that they won't be laughing. (More colorful, yet unprintable, comments here.)

Isaac Kim, who smokes half a pack a day, said he wants to quit. But when he has tried, "it's horrible. It's horrible." Cigarettes help him concentrate, too, he said, so he's worried about three-hour lectures without a smoke break. "That's going to be a problem."

Montgomery College has a Web site with links to off-campus smoking cessation programs and may offer some on campus this fall, Ackerman said. About 18 percent of the people on campus use tobacco.

Nooni Reatig, who is taking math classes before studying architecture at graduate school, said: "I think that even though people might not like it in the beginning, once we get used to it, we won't see how we could deal with it before.

"As a culture we're becoming more healthy. . . . When I go to other parts of the world, sit in a cafe with a lot of people smoking, it affects me. I just take for granted that I can sit outside and eat smoke-free."

Kim said he's not surprised about the rule, because it seems as if smoking is forbidden everywhere, absolutely everywhere.

So where does he smoke now? "In my car," he said.

As long as it's not on campus.

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