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Inhale, Cough, Exhale: The Argument for Smoke-Free Campuses

I’ve had a long-standing hatred for tobacco products. Many of my most vivid memories in the path of tobacco smoke since childhood include having to stop in my tracks, and attempt to catch my breath as the feeling of tightness in my chest increased and my coughing became uncontrollable. While the smoker may have only been in my vicinity for a few seconds, their effects on me persisted for many panicked moments to come. Fortunately, policies to reduce smoking in public areas have since greatly decreased the second-hand smoke I, and numerous other non-smokers, are forced to encounter.

Growing up in Toronto, I am grateful to have lived in one of a handful of Ontario cities to have stricter smoke-free bylaws than the Smoke Free Ontario Act. This meant that not only was smoking banned in public spaces and workplaces, and restaurant patios within a 20-metre radius of playgrounds and sports fields as outlined by the provincial Act, smoking was also prohibited within 9-metres of an entrance or exit of buildings used by the public, park amenities, and public squares. Most people are aware that smoke does not stay confined in one area, and these additional by-laws reduce the wafting of smoke into nearby protected spaces, including buildings through open doors, windows, and vents. Yet as logical as these increased measures may seem, they are sadly still not the norm in our province.

By now, we have all heard the many negative effects smoking has on a person’s health and well-being. However, smoking and restricting its practice in places shared by a community such as a university campus is fundamentally different from prohibiting engagement in other vices, such as eating unhealthy food, drinking alcoholic beverages, or binge-watching TV. Indeed, they share an increasingly large burden on our increasing medical expenses due to a higher prevalence of chronic diseases from their lifestyle choices – a burden financially shouldered by all in our province. Here however is where smoking differs. While other vices impact only the individuals and their families who choose to engage in such behaviours, the detrimental health effects of smoking are unavoidable to all in a society that dismissively encourages the use of tobacco products. Second-hand smoking in non-smokers can cause heart disease, cancer, and stroke in adults, as well as ear infections, severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, and a greater risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in children, just to name a few.

Recently, McMaster University announced that starting in the new year, smoking will be banned on campus. This will effectively make them the very first smoke-free postsecondary campus in Ontario. I applaud the university for taking this step in creating a healthier and more inclusive campus. Furthermore, the purpose of a smoke-free campus is not to simply push smokers out of sight as many opponents have suggested. Rather, McMaster University’s commitment to providing smoking cessation programs and resources for free on campus aids in addressing the root of the issue, allowing the hope for a future where the paucity of smokers mitigates the need for smoke-free campus policies.

The facts are clear: prohibiting smoking on campus benefits all students, and as Canada’s next generation, we need to make the health and well-being of postsecondary students a priority. According to Health Canada and Smoke-Free Ontario Scientific Advisory Committee data, the prevalence of smoking among young adults at the postsecondary age remains higher than any other age demographic at 23% despite the overall decrease in smoking rate in Canada in recent years. In crowded spaces such as campuses between classes, the air quality from second-hand smoke can be comparable to indoor active smoking. There is no known safe level of second-hand smoke.

On the bright side, data also shows that students are less likely to smoke if they attend a school that prohibits smoking. With close to 900,000 postsecondary students in Ontario, addressing smoking on campus through the implementation of smoke-free policies and resources for smoking cessation is an effective and impactful avenue to prevent a new generation of lifetime smokers. Postsecondary institutions have a unique opportunity to encourage healthy lifestyle changes and habits that benefit their students for decades to come.

Starting January 2018, McMaster is leading the way in helping its students, both smokers and non-smokers alike, have a more positive and healthy postsecondary experience. To the remaining twenty Ontario universities, it’s your move.