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Amid mixed results, SUNY Oswego hopes to revisit tobacco ban

Payne Horning
Cigarette butts are often found around the campus of SUNY Oswego, despite college's ban on tobacco.

SUNY Oswego put a tobacco ban policy in place three years ago. The intention was to stop staff and students from smoking on campus, but some continue to light up. The mixed results are now prompting some college officials to renew their efforts to end tobacco use on campus. 

On a recent fall morning at SUNY Oswego, students were making their way to class.

At first it was hard to spot a smoker. But before long, the indistinguishable smell of a cigarette leads you just off of the quad to the side of the communications building where history and political science major Spencer Timmons is grabbing a smoke.

"I have to be to classes during the day, this is how I relax," Timmons said. "I don’t have time to drive off of campus every time I want a cigarette."

Timmons says he knows about the ban and will move away from others if the smoke is bothering them, but he's not putting the cigarette out.

"I’m a smoker," Timmons said. "I pay to come here. It’s my right. I’m outdoors."

The college's policy is pretty straightforward: no use of any kind of tobacco on campus, even in personal cars parked on college grounds. But Barbara St. Michel, the associate director of campus life at SUNY Oswego, says people still smoke - and they're pretty brazen about it.

"I imagine in the past people would go hide some place on campus and smoke," St. Michel said. "Now it’s in the open and that's very, very frustrating."

St. Michel says it was not always like this. Initially compliance was high. But it's been on a slide ever since. She says a big hurdle is finding people who are willing to help enforce the policy by approaching smokers on campus.

"Not everybody is comfortable going up to someone and saying, 'you shouldn’t be doing that,'" St. Michel said. "That has always been a challenge, particularly for our students."

It's not against a state law to smoke on a college campus even though it is at K-12 schools. So university police won't ticket violators.

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
John Rossi is chief of university police at SUNY Oswego.

Chief John Rossi says his officers do inform students of the policy and if they refuse to quit, refer them to the student conduct board. But Rossi says that rarely happens. Enforcement is not the issue, he says, it's the constant refresh.

"Every year we have at least 2,000 new students on our campus and we have to reeducate everybody all over again," Rossi said. 

Fred Pierce, director of communications at SUNY Cortland, says their college sees that changeover as an opportunity. Cortland uses the same type of self-policing for enforcement as Oswego does. But Pierce says what's worked really well for them is their public awareness efforts they have used since the college implemented the tobacco ban in 2013.

"We make sure that students know before orientation," Pierce said. "During open house is when we let prospective students know that this is a tobacco-free campus. It’s on all of our materials, we have signs around campus."

SUNY Oswego has put up new signs and removed cigarette receptacles, but you can still find cigarette butts on the ground. So St. Michel says it's time for a reboot. She plans to assemble a group of students, faculty and staff next semester to see how they can increase compliance with the tobacco ban. St. Michel says educating people about the health consequences from tobacco, rather than confronting or punishing them, will still be the focus. 

But some committed smokers among the faculty and student body, like Timmons, think the college needs to use this reset as an opportunity to change their approach.

"Realistically, they could have designated smoking areas and that would be much more realistic and keep the butts from going anywhere," Timmons said. "If you give us a receptacle, we will use it. But telling me I can’t smoke outright at all - that’s not the way to go about it."