By STEVEN NALLEY
Panelists addressed concerns about enforcement of and support for a proposal to make Mississippi State University a tobacco-free campus during two open forums Wednesday and Thursday at the Colvard Student Union.
More than one audience member asked questions about enforcing the proposed end to tobacco use on campus by August 2014. Student affairs vice president and forum panelist Bill Kibler said the proposal actually removes provisions for punitive sanctions that are in the current version of MSU’s tobacco policy.
“Compared to most of our colleague institutions, most of their (tobacco-free) policies have resulted in strengthening of accountability measures,” Kibler said. “We’re taking a completely different position, taking that language down a notch. It’s not the sanctioning ability or potential punitive measures that have resulted in compliance (with tobacco policy) on this campus over the past 30 years.”
For instance, Kibler said the reason no one smokes inside campus buildings anymore is less because indoor smoking is specifically precluded in campus policy and more because no one else is doing it — the change has been cultural rather than institutional. He said the University of Texas in Austin, Texas implemented its tobacco-free policy in a manner similar to the MSU proposal, but where UT quickly transitioned to a tobacco-free campus, the MSU proposal calls for a slow transition over a year and a half starting in Spring 2013.
Others cited concerns about surveys an MSU task force appointed to research the proposal conducted. In Wednesday’s forum, National Social Climate Survey of Tobacco Control project director Robert McMillan said one task force survey showed about half of faculty and staff respondents were in favor of keeping the policy the same as before, and the other half were in favor of changes, with one quarter in favor of stricter regulations and one quarter in favor of going tobacco-free. At that same forum, Faculty Senate Vice President Jerry Emison said he questions implementing a policy change supported by a minority.
“If you cite that you’ve polled faculty and students, you need to be clear about what that poll says,” Emison said.
Then, in Thursday’s forum, Jack Jordan, head of MSU’s classical and modern languages and literature department, said he had the same concern.
“Actually, 75 percent were against a total ban,” Jordan said.
In each case, McMillan said other universities have not necessarily seen widespread support for tobacco-free policies at the time of implementation, but surveys have shown that support increases in the years after implementation. Another panelist, MSU health education and wellness director Joyce Yates, said there was more to consider than just the surveys.
“Tobacco (use) is the most preventable cause of death in the U.S.,” Yates said. “Beyond the survey .... we look at things that add to the quality of life for the students. When we do that, we know the academic success of the student goes up.”
While the audience and panelists kept dialogue going all the way through each hour-long panel, turnout was modest, filling only a fraction of the Colvard Student Union Ballroom’s Salon U. Kibler said he estimated attendance at about 30 per forum in a room with seating for hundreds, but he declined to attribute the low attendance to the forums’ proximity to student exams.
“We felt like this was still while we were in mainstream activities for the semester,” Kibler said. “It would not have been appropriate for reading days (Dec. 5-6) or exam week (Dec. 7-13). We never expected to have this room be full. I’m actually pleased with the turnout. For those that (did) come, I feel like they felt it was worth their while.”
Kibler also said the MSU task force has made several previous efforts to solicit feedback from the community, including surveys and open meetings with the MSU Staff Council and other campus assemblies.
“We’ve had a wide variety of open settings all along the way,” Kibler said.
Jordan was one of several audience members in Thursday’s forum who, despite expressing concerns about the proposal, acknowledged a need to quit smoking.
“I’m really not all that opposed to (the proposal),” Jordan said. “It’s going to help me quit, because I don’t want to have to talk to the dean. I almost didn’t come, because I’ve known (a tobacco-free MSU) was coming for a long time.”