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McMaster’s smoking ban evokes a mixed response

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By: Gabi Herman

In a highly publicized message last week, McMaster University announced that they would ban all smoking on campus starting in January. This includes cigarettes, cigars, marijuana and e-cigs. Many in the campus community have lauded McMaster’s health-promoting decisions, but others are concerned about feasibility and accessibility.

The new policy is in the spirit of the Okanagan Charter, an agreement McMaster signed that calls on universities to “embed health into all aspects of campus cultures.”

Tobacco use and exposure to second-hand smoke have well-established links with heart disease, stroke, cancer and respiratory distress. McMaster hopes this move will help foster a campus community that makes healthy decisions. The university will provide support to those quitting, with resources and sessions available to help students, staff, and faculty quit smoking.

McMaster is Ontario’s first campus to ban smoking, and the responses of the media and Ontario’s post-secondary community have been largely positive. The, University of Toronto responded to McMaster’s smoking ban by announcing their plan to institute a smoking ban too, according to the Varsity. Across Canada, smoking bans already exist at 14 campuses, mostly on the east coast. Reportedly, the bans there have been mostly successful.

A primary concern with the policy is whether enforcement is feasible. Right now, smoking is banned within nine metres of an entrance and inside all buildings. However, smoking near building entrances is extremely common, and the policy seems to go unenforced. Since the current policy is frequently broken, a stricter policy is very ambitious. Enforcement of the new smoking ban will be phased in over the next year, beginning with gentle reminders of McMaster’s smoking cessation policies.

McMaster’s size and location make it especially difficult to leave campus to smoke; the surrounding areas have few places to sit and rest, and many parts of campus are over ten minutes away from public property. This has the potential to impact employees who make use of short breaks to smoke.

According to Graham Baker, president of CUPE 3906, workers’ unions on campus were not consulted during the policy’s development, although they were told over the summer. Employers are not allowed to punish employees for breaking the smoking policy, but are not obligated to give employees extra break time to go off campus and smoke. McMaster has also stated it has worked to address concerns that smokers will crowd the sidewalks in surrounding neighbourhoods, but has not provided specifics.

In the announcement, the university wrote that it paid attention to the needs of Indigenous students, whose use of traditional and sacred medicines may conflict with the policy. Indigenous students can receive exemptions upon request.

Piers Kreps, co-president of the Cooperative of Indigenous Studies Students and Alumni said that CISSA was not consulted in the planning of the smoking ban, or given warning about the policy. Exemptions upon request could present a problem.

“It’s not like we plan when we’re going to smudge or burn tobacco,” said Kreps. However, Kreps was cautiously optimistic.

“I think this provides the university with a wonderful opportunity to promote and educate [students and staff about] the Indigenous position here,” he said.

Other accessibility concerns have been raised. Alex Wilson, Student Representative Assembly member (Science), put forward a motion at the SRA meeting on Sunday night.

“Marginalized groups are disproportionately affected by addiction and substance use due to social factors,” read the motion. The motion passed, so the MSU’s official position now advises against moving towards a smoke free campus without considering other factors such as safety and accessibility.

Ryan Deshpande, McMaster Students Union vice president (Education), was consulted by McMaster University, and reached out to the SRA for input. “The policy has not been finalized yet, and review is still ongoing,” said Deshpande.

For further clarity, student and staff groups will have to wait until policy finalization in the new year.

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