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Towson University fires up a strict anti-smoking policy

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2011; B01

Towson University first pushed its smokers out of campus buildings and into the great outdoors. Then, 30 feet away from buildings. Finally, last semester, it was off campus altogether.

Between classes, smokers rush to the state- or county-owned roads edging the Baltimore County campus. Not stepping off school property before lighting up can mean a $75 fine.

"On campus, it's a breath of fresh air - finally," said Steven Crudele, a former member of the student government who was part of the campus smoke-free task force. "When you are walking in and out of buildings, you don't have to walk through a cloud of smoke."

Towson is one of the first universities in the Washington region to implement a strict, campuswide smoking ban. Similar initiatives are slowly becoming popular at colleges across the country. Many university hospitals have such policies in place, as do several Maryland community colleges.

Such bans quickly clear the air at college campuses, allowing nonsmokers to study and learn, indoors and out, without the distraction or danger of secondhand smoke. The bans also try to speak directly to smokers, carrying the message that inhaling toxins is not healthy for anyone. That message is reinforced every time a smoker heads for the campus boundary.

Several colleges in the region have debated how best to balance the rights of smokers and nonsmokers in outdoor spaces, especially near residence halls or building entrances.

Often, this results in complex policies. American University doesn't allow smokers near residence hall entrances. The University of Maryland at College Park makes smokers stand at least 15 feet away from building entrances, windows and air ducts. The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech set the gap at 25 feet.

Towson President Robert L. Caret decided several years ago that he wanted to make the entire campus smoke-free, and he created a task force in 2007 to implement the idea. It hasn't been easy.

Towson is the second-largest public university in Maryland. It was founded as a teachers college, and it continues to produce more teachers than any other school in the state. Towson has almost 22,000 students and more than 2,000 faculty and staff members. About 4,500 students live in campus residence halls; the rest commute. Although more than 67 percent of the student population is white, Towson is one of the few U.S. universities that doesn't have a gap between its graduation rates for white and underrepresented minority students.

Last week, Caret announced that he is leaving Towson to become president of the University of Massachusetts System, where he will oversee five campuses and more than 65,000 students.

The task force debated designating a few spots on campus for smokers but decided to make it a campuswide ban.

"Either you are smoke-free or you are not," said Jerry Dieringer, task force co-chairman and the university's assistant vice president for student affairs.

Towson previously had a rule that smokers couldn't stand within 30 feet of a building, but the rule was difficult to enforce, and clouds of smoke hovered over many parts of the 328-acre campus north of Baltimore. A popular smoking hangout was "the Beach," a grassy quad where students like to lie out and study.

"Rain or shine, students would be outside smoking," said Crudele, 20, a junior who is majoring in history and secondary education. "Rain, especially, was bad because they would stand really close to the building."

Starting in fall 2008, the task force began to educate the campus about the impending ban by hosting forums to answer questions, promoting cessation programs at the health center and counting down the months, using the image of disappearing cigarettes.

Concerns arose: Did this violate the rights of smokers? Could a public university really do this? Was the university putting smokers in danger by pushing them off campus?

"There should be some safe zones other than public streets," said Alex Dolan, 20, a junior music education major. "A lot of my friends are cigarette smokers. . . . They feel confined when they are on campus."

The aim of the ban was not to force people to stop smoking, Dieringer said. Instead, officials wanted to make the air healthier for nonsmokers and reduce cigarette litter. Towson's ban went into effect Aug. 1, and for the first month, smokers were given warnings if they were caught. People on campus were asked to hand out information cards and file a report if they found someone smoking (school officials said not to call police).

After the second month, the university began to issue citations. Officials have handed out about 100 fines, Dieringer said. They decided to match the fine for campus parking tickets - $75. The money the college collects will be used to offset the cost of the program and no-smoking signs.

Campus visitors, including construction workers, are expected to abide by the ban, although the university does not fine them.

The jaunts off campus are nearly always annoying to smokers, but they reach another level of frustration when it's raining or freezing cold.

"I don't know anyone who's happy about it," said Matthew Ferguson, 22, a senior English major. "I have friends who try to run off campus in between class. It puts more stress on them while they're trying to relieve some stress."

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