Georgia regents consider tobacco ban for all university system schools

Smokers’ days may be numbered on many of Georgia’s college campuses, as the state Board of Regents considers a total tobacco ban for all 31 institutions in the university system.

The ban is being pushed by Regent Thomas Hopkins, an orthopedic surgeon from Griffin who wants it to apply to students, staff and visitors.

The proposal, which he would like the regents to discuss early next year, follows a national trend of similar bans — promoted as health initiatives — implemented at schools, parks, around hospitals and in restaurants. Last September, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a national tobacco-free college campus initiative to promote bans like Hopkins is proposing. The initiative counts more than 1,100 colleges and universities in its smoke-free fold.

“Most of these kids start smoking at school because they think it looks cool and they’re away from home and their parents,” Hopkins said. “But, it’s not healthy and I would hope we would do something about that.”

The board is likely to have some opposition from students. Student smokers see the ban as an intrusion on their rights.

“We’re paying to go to school and we should be allowed to do this. We’re not in high school anymore,” said Foster Bass, a botany student at Georgia Perimeter College.

Bass and his friends were standing outside on a recent day, across from the cafeteria in an area where smoking is allowed on the college’s Clarkston campus. Many in the group had been smoking about a fourth of their lives.

“This is not right and this ban would be ridiculous,” said Matthew, 19, a computer engineering student at GPC who didn’t want to give his last name. “It would be just one more way of banning our freedom. I think they put too much emphasis on not smoking. This isn’t illegal. We’re not selling drugs.”

Smoking in all enclosed state-owned or -leased facilities — including dorms and classrooms — is already banned in Georgia. The proposal before the regents would apply to outdoor spaces on campuses, said Valerie Hepburn, a former college president who is leading the overhaul of the University System of Georgia’s health benefits plan.

Discussions about tobacco-free campuses have been ongoing since the university system launched its public health research and teaching programs in 2003, but this is the first time the regents will consider a systemwide ban.

Details of how to implement the ban have to be worked out, Hepburn said. A policy would have to be drafted, a compliance date would have to be set and the system would have to work with the schools and local health departments to provide students and staff with help to stop smoking and using tobacco.

The university system does not have data on how many of its students smoke or use tobacco products. About 70 percent of college students nationwide reported that they had never smoked in the past three years of surveys conducted by the American College Health Association. In the most recent survey completed this spring, almost 14 percent of students reported smoking cigarettes within the previous 30 days.

Hopkins already has support for his proposal from incoming Regents Chairman Philip Wilheit.

Wilheit, president of a packaging products company headquartered in Gainesville, implemented a tobacco ban at his office three years ago. It was a smart financial decision, he said.

“I think it is the wave of the future,” he said. “I think as regents we have a responsibility to our students to do what’s best for them and their health.”

Various schools within the university system already have some sort of smoking or tobacco ban. Some schools outlaw all tobacco products, and others allow students to smoke in designated areas that are specified distances from common areas.

Wilheit is unsure how the ban would be implemented at outdoor athletic facilities. Some facilities already have tobacco policies in place. All areas of the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium are tobacco-free, and smoking also is prohibited in Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.

But one thing Wilheit isn’t for: designated smoking areas.

“I think that is like being a little bit pregnant,” he said.

And what about those students, like Bass, who say they’re adults and ought to be able to do what they want?

“They can do what they want, but they can’t do it on our campuses,” Hopkins said.

Outside the university system, higher education institutions vary on their tobacco policies. Emory implemented a full tobacco ban last year, while Clark Atlanta University allows smoking in some designated outdoor areas.