With the opening of the new lawmaking session in Albany this month, legislation banning tobacco on State University of New York campuses, which failed to pass last year, can again be taken up for vote.
The legislation had expired quietly in committee last June; so quietly, in fact, that administrators at Stony Brook University were still preparing to implement the ban into September.
But news that the law failed to pass created more complications than it resolved. While two SUNY campuses had already banned tobacco products without legislation, others are hesitant to act in a continuing debate between individual rights and the health responsibilities of public institutions—a question that defined many recent public health debates, including former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to regulate soda sizes in New York City and two states legalizing marijuana use.
A law banning tobacco on SUNY campuses would bypass the opposition from student groups that has dominated past debates, as well as union collective bargaining rules. Without legislative support, Stony Brook and other state campuses face pressure from SUNY and public health advocates to strengthen its tobacco policy and accountability to a large, unorganized smoking population.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control, accounting one in five deaths every year. Nearly all daily smokers start when they are 26 or younger, making the college demographic a key target for tobacco prevention. Yet whether or not this validates university tobacco bans is disputed.
Surveys show that a majority of students, including those who smoke, tend to support tobacco control on college campuses. But many question if tobacco policies are enforceable and how they might affect smokers.
“I’m always thinking about the students during finals, if it might be difficult for them in times of stress,” Fiona Grady, a 48-year-old librarian at Stony Brook said. Grady smokes and supports the idea of tobacco control, but is doubtful it can effectively be executed. “The thought behind it is good. Personal liberty issues though—I don’t know how they’re going to enforce it.”
SUNY’s tobacco-free initiative is derived from its five-year plan, which lists “a healthier New York” as one of six main goals. The SUNY Board of Trustees passed a resolution on June 12, 2012 calling for legislation that would ban all forms of tobacco on SUNY property by 2014, including e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
In doing so, SUNY became the largest public university system seeking to become tobacco-free, joining a nationwide trend of at least 422 universities that ban all forms of tobacco on their campuses.
But the law continually stalled in committee last year. Both bills were referred to the higher education committees of the Assembly and Senate at the beginning of this year’s legislative session.
The bill introduced by Assemblyman Walter Mosley has 11 cosponsors and multi-sponsors. Mosley’s chief of staff Tobi Jaiyesimi said whether the bill is considered depends on the legislative priorities of the Assembly.
“We are hoping that when the legislature is back in session in January that we will be able to gain some groundswell,” Jaiyesimi said.
Though either bill can now be taken up for vote this year, both missed the January 2014 goal, creating uncertainty among SUNY schools that were preparing for the ban since the 2012 resolution.
Stony Brook University launched a website with information about the potential policy on April 20, 2013 and increased its student health fee by $1.50. This was, in part, to provide tobacco cessation products to students. Following the missed legislation deadline, Stony Brook is still engaging in education and support efforts.
“What really needs to happen is more opportunities for education and creating a supportive culture so that the policy can be effective,” Director of Organizational Health and Wellness Donna Buehler said.
This is not the first time Stony Brook has considered banning tobacco products. In 2006, the University Senate Campus Environment Committee proposed limiting smoking to designated areas and banning it altogether by 2009.
The 2006 proposal immediately met opposition from the Graduate Student Organization and Undergraduate Student Government, which both passed a resolution condemning the policy with almost unanimous support.
In response, a smoking ban subcommittee was formed to include student representatives, but the smoking policy it presented to the Senate in 2007 was still largely opposed by students and was defeated in the senate by one vote.
A year later, the Senate approved a new policy banning smoking in front of building entrances, which became Stony Brook’s current policy.
Stony Brook’s protracted two-year smoking debate demonstrates the value of passing a tobacco law that would bypass local politics. Stony Brook has opted not to implement a policy until a law has passed.
Other SUNY schools, however, have been successful in passing tobacco policies. Several are smoke-free, others have executed the ban that would have been legislated, and SUNY Cortland and Erie Community College have both been tobacco-free since 2013.
Cortland’s policy was introduced in 2011—before SUNY’s resolution was approved—and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Though it is not clear yet how effective the policy has been, Associate Director of Public Relations at Courtland Jennifer Wilson said, “We don’t have a policing policy towards forbidding smoking on campus, we have a proactive policy of encouraging people to adopt a healthy behavior.”
Cortland underwent a process of reaching agreements with local unions and bargaining units to implement its policy as required by the New York Public Employment Relations Board. But this process is a deterrent for schools like Stony Brook.
When asked why Stony Brook would wait for a tobacco law to tighten its tobacco policy, Media Relations Officer Lauren Sheprow said, “Concerns were raised that [a tobacco free policy] should be collectively bargained in the absence of legislative directive.”
The tobacco bills will be active in the state assembly and senate until the end of the 2014 legislative session on June 5.