University Senate     

Proposed; December 4, 2009
Adopted: December 4, 2009


Excerpt from the minutes:

Update on smoking policy from Michael McNeil.  Sen. O’Halloran said a proposed new smoking policy for Morningside had spurred considerable discussion around the University. She wanted to bring the discussion into the Senate to assure a common dialogue involving many people and a good understanding of the policies and procedures involved. 

Sen. Applegate said he had met, on behalf of the Executive Committee, with Michael McNeil, an assistant director of Health Services at Columbia who was chairing a working group that had produced a new proposal.  He had invited Mr. McNeil to speak to the Senate.  He said the new proposal could later be discussed in the External Relations Committee, and possibly come to the Senate floor in the spring.

Sen. O’Halloran said Mr. McNeil was not presenting a formal proposal at this point, but only a progress report, to start a discussion.

Mr. McNeil began by returning to the question of H1N1 vaccine availability that had just been discussed.  He said Health Services would be sending an email to students, maybe later that day, listing access points throughout the city for the H1N1 vaccine as a way around the limited availability on campus.  He said New York City had modified its eligibility requirements for the publicly run clinics to include those up to age 24.  He himself would monitor e-mailed questions about the new announcement.

Turning to the deliberations of the Tobacco Policy Work Group, Mr. McNeil referred to an outline he had prepared for the present meeting on the recent history of this issue.  Over the past year, the group had been taking stock of current policies on smoking at Morningside, and developing a set of recommendations for VP Scott Wright in Student Services.

Mr. McNeil said the group viewed a number of national guideline documents, looked at peer institutions, and considered some of the discrepancies among the five university documents addressing tobacco use.  What was clear on the administrative side was significant inconsistency in the handling of tobacco issues.  From this study, a consensus idea took shape in the work group—to limit smoking to designated areas outside the main gates of campus.  For the time being, this was just an idea the work group was trying out on various Morningside constituencies.  An attempt to solicit feedback last spring did not receive much of a response.  Those who did respond generally favored the restriction.  But the work group recognized the need for more discussion, Mr. McNeil said. 

He said the work group was supporting an initiative of Morningside student governments to conduct a more scientific poll of students.  He said the Senate—both the plenary and the External Relations Committee—would provide another venue for discussion to gather the information that would ultimately inform the recommendations. 

Mr. McNeil said he would not regurgitate all the information the work group had gathered, but would emphasize the group’s overriding preference for consistency in tobacco policy.  For example, different buildings have different distance rules.  He said a number of smokers are willing to comply, but don’t know which set of rules to comply with.  He said the policy the work group envisioned was more a place restriction than a ban.  The group recognized that members of the Columbia community choose to smoke, and designated spaces would need to be identified for them if the policy were to be changed.

He noted, in the outline document that he had distributed, a list of participants in the work group’s deliberations to date, and the various tobacco policy documents around campus. 

Sen. Gerald Sherwin (Alum.) asked about the different tobacco policies at Barnard, Teachers College, and the Jerome Greene building. 

Mr. McNeil said Barnard has its own policy—basically that smoking is prohibited indoors or out.   There is one designated area for outdoor smoking, although Barnard students have expressed concern about current enforcement efforts.  Teachers College forbids smoking within 50 feet of all buildings, so it is also de facto smoke-free.  Jerome Greene is subject to New York State law, which bans smoking in many buildings.  Since August of 2008 the law also has applied to undergraduate housing.  That addition prompted the current review of Morningside policies.

Elsewhere on campus, Mr. McNeil said, the rules depend on one’s location at a given moment.  Undergraduate residence halls have a 20-foot rule; Lewisohn Hall has a fifty-foot rule.  Of Butler Library, he said only that it is a point of contention.  He said the lack of a single answer to Sen. Sherwin’s question was an important reason for recommending a clarification.

Sen. O’Halloran said this situation was an important reason to involve the Senate, one of whose main roles is to develop University-wide policies.  A tobacco policy should be fair, consistent, transparent, and easily enforceable. 

Sen. James Neal (Admin.), the University Librarian, asked what was known about compliance and enforcement for such policies, at Columbia as well as other universities.

Mr. McNeil said this was the biggest concern the group was hearing.  What would be the level of enforcement of a new policy?  He said the work group had studied enforcement efforts at other institutions that have changed their tobacco policies. Overwhelmingly, he said, there had been voluntary compliance.  He said smoking rates continue to decline in the United States, with daily smokers now in single-digit percentages.  He said some institutions have restricted smoking to parking lots—not an option for Morningside, but one that’s easy to enforce.  The work group was studying how other urban institutions address the problem that some of the property involved belongs to the city, not the university. This was a main reason why the group had made no recommendations yet.  There was more work to be done, in a process Mr. McNeil expected to take another year.

Sen. Jose Robledo (Stu., GS) asked how a new policy would be enforced for people who don’t comply.  Would Columbia fine them?

Mr. McNeil said that if the work group were to recommend changes in policy, it would have to address that issue. He said procedures are in place now to deal with anyone who violates a University policy.  The University’s policy on smoking is very specific about indoor smoking. Mr. McNeil said, with some confidence, that the work group would not replace current sanctions.

Sen. John Brust (Ten., CUMC) said compliance would likely depend on how reasonable people think a new policy is.  He said smoking outdoors doesn’t carry the same risk of second-hand smoke as smoking in a bar.  He asked how Mr. McNeil would respond to someone who asked why he wanted to restrict outdoor smoking.

Mr. McNeil said that according to research in New York City since the implementation of the smoking ban in bars and restaurants, New Yorkers have higher-than-average levels of blood cotinine (related to nicotine) even though they smoke less than the national average.  So they are exposed in their environments, with long-term implications for their health.  Mr. McNeil conceded that short-term health effects are not obvious, although people with respiratory problems are definitely affected.  He said designating certain spaces for smoking would change the place, but not address the underlying question of the effect of second-hand outdoor smoke, and the work group would have to think more about this before making recommendations.

Sen. Vijay Yadav (Research Officers)  said the signs restricting smoking at the Medical Center are confusing.  He asked if research officers would be polled along with students in considering a new policy.

Mr. McNeil said the range of participants in surveys varies. In a student survey in the spring of 2009, Health Services had 7,448 usable responses—a significant number.  But another attempt to solicit feedback had only six faculty responses.  With discrepancies among responses like these, he said, it is clear that there needs to be more discussion, involving more groups. 

He also agreed that there are inconsistencies with signage. In some buildings signs restricting smoking have appeared on doors, but people in the buildings can’t explain how they got there.  He said the work group has spoken with Facilities about standardizing signage.

Sen. Michael Adler (Ten., Bus.) expressed the outrage of a professing, unabashed and continuing smoker.  He cited Emerson’s characterization of a foolish consistency as the hobgoblin of small minds.  He said smokers had indeed become a minority, but should not be persecuted and discriminated against.  He said that smoking helps him think, and he said doctors who had urged him to reduce his smoking had told him not to cut it out altogether since it helps his nerves.  He said the idea of appointing a committee to review a situation that does not need remedying, with a sense of obligation to produce an original recommendation, such as a total ban on outdoor smoking on campus, was to him stupid beyond belief.

Sen. O’Halloran said Sen. Adler was always a good representative of minority views, and he had raised a representative issue, which had figured in the change from the complete ban originally proposed to the setting of some designated areas for smokers.
Sen. Andrew Springer (Stu., Journalism) asked who would make the  final decision on the work group’s recommendation to Vice President Scott Wright. He also asked how the contemplated policy was not a ban, if the only place allowed was outside the campus gates.

Mr. McNeil conceded that there could be a semantic argument about Sen. Springer’s second point.  The issue is one of terminology because the work group acknowledges that members of the campus community do smoke.  He added that there were smokers in the work group, and he was happy that they continued to participate.  He said the policy must recognize that while smokers can only smoke outside the gates, they would still be identified and recognized.  Receptacles would be placed in the designated areas, and maintained by the University.  He recognized that the policy would feel very much like a ban for those outside the gates.  But in the work group’s rationale, the first item is respect for smokers as a constituent group at Columbia.

As for the decision on a new policy, Mr. McNeil said he would deliver the recommendation of the work group to Vice President Wright, and await further orders.

Sen. O’Halloran said the Senate, which had dealt with previous smoking policies, would ask for a new policy to come to the External Relations Committee for further deliberations, possibly hearings and town hall meetings. The final stage would be a Senate resolution for debate and action.  She added that the president, if he were to disagree with the Senate action, could ask the Trustees to veto a Senate resolution.  A dialogue would follow.  She did not anticipate this kind of outcome, but hoped that the Senate could provide the setting for the broadest input.  She thanked Mr. McNeil for introducing the issue to the Senate.

Sen. Mary Byrne (NT, Nursing) said smoking cessation programs are often offered in conjunction with restrictive policies.  She asked if such cessation programs were planned.

Mr. McNeil said that in 2008 Health Services revamped its smoking cessation program for students to meet clinical practice guidelines and recommendations for best practices.  He said that as a certified cessation counselor, trained by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he was delighted to participate in this effort.  The Columbia program combines individual support with pharmacotherapy, either nicotine replacement or access to prescription medications.  Currently the satisfaction with these programs among students who take the satisfaction survey is about 95 percent.  Employees also receive support for cessation services. 

Sen. Adler asked how many times a person is allowed to quit.  As many times as they want, Mr. McNeil said. 

Sen. Robert Pollack (Ten., A&S/NS) said that if the intention was to create a wall of smokelessness coterminous with the property lines of the university, wasn’t it likely that New York City, with its current mayor, would say, Not in my backyard?  Why would it be all right to place local regions of high tobacco smoke outside campus gates in the City of New York, Columbia’s home?
Mr. McNeil said conversations with people who live and work in the neighborhood must take place before any new policy is recommended.

Sen. Pollack said he was one of those people, along with everyone else in the room, and the conversation was going on now.  He asked where the representative of Community Board 9 was, or the representative of the housing projects north of Columbia.  He thought, based on his too-long experience, that the contemplated policy would be either a waste of time or, much worse, a reason for the local community to see Columbia correctly as dumping its problem on them.

Sen. O’Halloran said a town hall meeting, broadly publicized for both the Columbia and local communities, would be a helpful way to conduct this discussion.  Any policy should be adopted transparently, to assure people that Columbia is addressing the problem in a responsible way, without dumping it on the surrounding community.

Mr. McNeil offered the example of a possible designated smoking location outside Jerome Greene Hall, where the present meeting was taking place, on 116th Street near the gates to the Wien courtyard.  This location might be suitable, provided there are no nearby air intakes or windows, because it would impinge only minimally on the neighborhood. 

Sen. Svedin asked how the policy would be developed.  Would VP Scott Wright, if he approves a policy recommendation, send it on to the Senate?  Sen. O’Halloran said that was correct.

Sen. Karen Green (Libraries) said she was startled by the apparent argument that because only a very small fraction of students smoke, an outright ban was acceptable.  She said that she had never smoked, but that smoking is legal and a matter of free choice. 
Mr. McNeil said it was informative that so few students now smoke, but recognized that this fact did not justify a ban.

Sen. Boak said Columbia has many international students, from countries that do not see smoking as Americans do.  Referring to the idea that respect for smokers was a priority of the work group, he doubted smokers required to go off campus to smoke would get this message. 

Sen. Boak also wondered if the basic issue was air quality more generally than tobacco specifically.  He said his lungs were harmed much more by idling trucks than by people smoking outside a building.  He said idling truck engines are against the law in New York City, but he did not think Columbia Security enforces this ban.  He suggested that restricting smoking should be understood as part of a broader effort to improve air quality.

Mr. McNeil said two environmental issues had come up in committee deliberations:  air quality, and the fact that cigarette waste is not readily biodegradable.  These issues had not figured prominently, but that was another reason why he thought there was more to discuss.

Sen. Pollack said the issue for him was not legality, or consistency.  He added, to laughter, that he hated to be in agreement with Professor Adler, but thought the Columbia community of some 50,000 people had to share the consequences of forcing people to smoke off campus.  He saw no grounds for Columbia, having justifiably moved smokers out of buildings, to then say it wanted to reduce the exposure of its own community to tobacco by moving smokers into the non-Columbia public space.  He said this was not a civilized act to the larger community. The air is the same air, and to act as if Columbia air can be cleaner than the city air was intrinsically an elitist, non-fact-based, risky, tendentious position.  He asked the work group to rethink its purpose in light of the politics of its recommendations, as against the false science. 

Sen. O’Halloran thanked all participants for a good first discussion.  She looked forward to learning the recommendation of the work group, and to putting the Senate to work on it. 

Mr. McNeil thanked the Senate, and looked forward to reporting again later.  He invited senators to share further thoughts. He said he would now take copious notes of the discussion just ended so he wouldn’t forget anything.

Sen. Adler asked if Mr. McNeil would simply quit this enterprise.

Sen. O’Halloran said the work group represented a significant percentage of the population, whose voice also deserved to be heard.  She said the dialogue on these issues was beneficial.