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No smoking at U-Mary

A sign at the south entrance to the University of Mary campus tells visitors that smoking and tobacco are now off limits. The university became a smoke-free campus on Aug. 15. The university's campuses also will be tobacco-free beginning Jan. 1, 2012.

The entrance to the University of Mary's Benedictine Center features four pots filled with colorful flowers, but the garbage cans for cigarette disposal that used to sit there are gone. Instead, the door to the building has a blue and orange sticker informing all who enter that the campus is now smoke free.

The university's new smoke-free policy went into effect on Aug. 15, making it the latest of 15 colleges in North Dakota to ban smoking on all school grounds. Starting Jan. 1, 2012, all of the university's campuses also will be tobacco free, becoming the 13th college to make that move. Other schools forbid smoking in buildings, and some have unwritten policies regarding tobacco use on campus.

The only U-Mary satellite campus unchanged by the new policy is the school's Rome campus, which is not controlled by the university.

Tom Fischer, U-Mary's director of human resources and risk management, said the push for the move to smoke free began with the school's peer health organization, Health PRO. They researched the subject and formed a proposal that would have banned smoking beginning this semester and all tobacco products at the same time next year. The University Senate passed the proposal and sent it on to Father James Shea, the university president.

"It was more student-driven than anything, by far," Fischer said.

Shea was unsure about the lengthy proposal that landed on his desk and asked Fischer, who began in February, to work with Health PRO to make the policy more manageable. The new proposal, which eliminated tobacco products beginning in 2012 rather than waiting for a new school year, also passed the University Senate and received Shea's approval. The university's trustees formally approved the policy last week, though students had been advised of the change months ago, Fischer said.

He said Health PRO came to the conclusion that going smoke free without getting rid of all tobacco products would not be enough to promote a "total healthy environment." The ban will make all types of tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes and other products using tobacco derivates, off limits.

Fischer said plenty of discussion and debate occurred during the planning phase. An opinion poll of the campus, including students, faculty and staff, showed approximately 17 percent used tobacco. While there were dissenters, Fischer said the vast majority of people were in favor of changing to a smoke-free and tobacco-free campus. Some tobacco users told him they were happy to receive an extra push to quit.

And Fischer doesn't believe the new policies will keep new students from going to U-Mary.

"I think just the opposite," he said. He has had at least six students approach him and say they would not have gone to the school if they knew smoking was allowed on campus. Fischer since has instructed the school's recruiters to make sure to mention the no-tobacco status to potential students.

Though some people feel bad for longtime smokers who will have to quit or abstain during their time on campus, Fischer said no-smoking and no-tobacco rules are catching on across the country. The American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation says at least 530 colleges nationwide are smoke free, while the American Lung Association of Oregon says at least 250 are tobacco free.

"It's becoming the norm to do," said Susan Kahler, community outreach coordinator at Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health.

Besides sending out literature about the new policies to students, the campus also has reminders everywhere. Kahler said the local health unit provided funding through tobacco settlement funds from BreatheND to put up signs around the campus. Large signs sit in the parking lots and at the main entrances to campus, while there are window stickers reminding people they can "breathe easy" when they enter buildings.

Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health has provided similar signs and assistance on tobacco-free policies for numerous schools, both K-12 and colleges, businesses and health care facilities throughout Burleigh County. The health unit is happy to do anything that reduces the use of tobacco, Kahler said.

"(Such policies) help change social norms, which reduces tobacco use," Kahler said.

Fischer said state-funded resources are available for people who want to quit smoking but need help, whether it be nicotine patches or a supportive person. Additionally, faculty and staff insurance will help them take any steps necessary to quit. The university has planned several open forums to discuss the changes, as well as a convocation about tobacco use on campus on Sept. 1.

The new policy at U-Mary does not set any hard, fast penalties on smokers. Fischer said smoking or using tobacco against the regulations will be a performance issue for faculty or staff and will go through normal disciplinary procedures for students.

"We'll have our incidents," he said.

The policy isn't just for regulars on campus - visitors of all kinds must abide by it.

"It's absolutely, totally tobacco free on the first of the year for anyone on our campus," Fischer said.

(Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.)

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