Yisu Zheng/Sun Staff Photographer

After a campus-wide referendum scheduled almost two years ago failed to take place, efforts to consider instituting a tobacco-free policy have resumed in the form of nicotine use survey sent to members of the Cornell community.

November 14, 2019

Tobacco Ban Back on Table As University Assembly Surveys Cornell Nicotine Use

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As fears over the dangers of e-cigarettes continue to swell, Cornell has reignited an effort that could see its campus vapers and smokers with many fewer places to go.

Sponsored by Cornell’s University Assembly, a campus-wide “nicotine use” survey was first sent by email to students and staff on Oct. 22 and will be open until Nov. 14, asking respondents dozens of questions on their nicotine habits and thoughts on tobacco.

“The U.A. and CJC [Codes and Judicial Committee] has been discussing a nicotine use survey over the last three years,” David Hiner, chair of the University Assembly’s Campus Welfare Committee, told The Sun. “After stalled attempts during each academic year, the U.A. made the commitment to get a brief survey out to the Cornell Community and make a recommendation to the Cornell Leadership body.”

Citing the growing number of colleges that are adopting an increasingly tough posture on tobacco, the survey asked respondents if the U.A. should recommend a two-to-three year process to establish a tobacco-free campus.

Several of Cornell’s peers have already adopted various versions of such a policy, including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and the entire State University of New York college system. Across the country, at least 500 colleges and universities are estimated to have taken measures to ban tobacco use on campus, according to the American Lung Association.

While Cornell’s current rules prohibit tobacco in all indoor facilities, smoking or vaping is currently permitted outdoors, so long as it is done so at least 25 feet from a building’s entrance. On the other hand, the University of Binghamton — like other schools that have adopted tobacco-free measures — forbids tobacco use on the entirety of its campus.

But the effort to poll Cornell on tobacco policy is only its most recent: Two years ago, another U.A. resolution set the stage for a high-profile, campus-wide vote to ask community members if the University should ban all tobacco products from the Ithaca campus.

However, according to Hiner, “unfortunately, that [vote] did not happen” due to what then Chair of the Welfare Committee Joe Anderson ’20 called logistical issues, The Sun previously reported, prompting the decision to conduct a survey instead of a vote.

This time, the Welfare Committee will use “the data to look at trends between different populations to determine where smoking trends” are within the Cornell community, while also taking into account the “public debate that is currently happening online,” Hiner said.

That “debate” has largely been met with mixed, sometimes heated reactions. An anonymous comment page set up by the U.A. to gauge public reaction has so far received well over 400 comments, ranging from those who say such a measure would amount to a “draconian step” on a campus of well over 25,000 — to those who believe it would be a victory for public health.

“Ban it to save our lungs from those too selfish to think of others,” one commenter wrote, while another called “this policy cruel, unrealistic and absurd.” Others pointed out that such a measure could force tobacco-users to travel prohibitively far distances to smoke without running afoul of the proposed policy.

Paul Agbaje ’22, co-founder of Escape the Vape, an anti-tobacco educational initiative, expressed some skepticism regarding the proposed ban’s enforcement: “It seems a little feeble,” he shared with The Sun, calling complete enforcement of a tobacco ban “impractical.”

But both Agbaje and Jack Waxman ’22 — the other co-founder of Escape the Vape –– nevertheless praised the university for taking initiative on the issue of tobacco use amongst Cornellians. “It just shows the university is caring about our health,” Waxman, who is also a Sun dining staff writer, said.

The survey closes Friday, and organizers have not indicated when results will become available.

Should results of the campus-wide survey convince the U.A. to formally recommend a change to University policy, it would be up to the administration’s final decision, though Hiner said that he expects such a proposal would be taken “seriously” by senior officials.

Although a University spokesperson did not provide additional information, President Martha Pollack has previously spoken out on proposals to crack down on tobacco, expressing support for enhancing “understanding about the negative health effects of tobacco,” while cautioning that Cornell’s large size could pose feasibility issues.

“Deciding whether to make Cornell’s Ithaca campus tobacco-free involves many considerations,” Pollack said in a statement last year. “And although popular opinion among our students, faculty and staff is chief among them, other concerns — about enforcement and the impact on staff on a sprawling campus — must not be overlooked.”

Alec Giufurta ’21 contributed reporting to this story.