02/28/2012 04:42 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

Smoking Policies On Campus Inconsistent, Often Unenforced

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, just before the final week of classes at Boston University, Parissa Salimian is taking a break from hours of studying for finals, staring bleary-eyed at passersby from her perch atop the steps just outside the entrance of Mugar Memorial Library. She's smoking a filtered Camel cigarette, joining about a dozen smokers who have stepped outside to light up in order to cope with the pressures of preparing for exams and writing final papers.

"I just view it as a convenience when I'm stressed," the College of Arts and Sciences sophomore said.

Taking a cigarette break, however, could get a little less convenient for smokers outside the library. A "No smoking" sign will soon go up around the entrance and a 25-foot no-smoking perimeter will be established to keep the immediate area smoke-free, according to Anant Shukla, a Student Union senator who worked with administrators to implement the proposal. He says it was in response to a sizeable outcry from students.

Students say the atmosphere at Mugar is especially conducive to smoke breaks.

"The library equals studying and that requires smoking," said CAS junior Eve Barkwill, who was smoking outside the entrance with a friend.

Technically, the no-smoking policy at the library has been in effect since March. But without any signs to inform smokers about the new rules, the scene in front of Mugar has not changed.

"We're taking it one step at a time," said University Librarian Robert Hudson. "First of all we have to get our signs up."

Enforcement of the no-smoking zone is a difficult issue, Hudson said. He said he wasn't sure how the library staff was being trained to deal with smokers, but said he had not received any student or staff complaints so far.

Hudson said that to the best of his knowledge, the no smoking signs had been ordered, but was not sure when they would arrive.
Mugar isn't the first building on campus to try and shoo smokers away from doorways.

"Smoking is prohibited in this area" signs are displayed outside entrances of many of the colleges, including CAS and the School of Management. But at dormitories across the campus, no such signs exist outside doorways. In fact, in front of dormitory entryways at Rich, Claflin and Sleeper Halls in West Campus, many take advantage of benches and cigarette disposal posts just feet from the doorway, features that BU spokesman Colin Riley said are there as an "accommodation" to smokers.

Unlike some cities, Boston does not require smoking buffer zones &- a certain distance which smokers must stand away from building entryways, according to spokespersons from the Boston Public Health Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Health.

However, the state's Smoke-Free Workplace Law states it is a violation of the law for cigarette smoke to waft into a building.

"If the smoke is able to migrate back into the building, there needs to be a distance that keeps it from happening," said Elizabeth Brown, a policy analyst at the Massachusetts Department of Health Tobacco Control Program.

The BU student population seems divided over whether it's fair for the university to ban smokers from certain areas, such as the planned buffer zone at Mugar. Even smokers and nonsmokers disagree among themselves over which is more important - the freedom to enjoy a cigarette or the freedom to walk into a building unperturbed by secondhand smoke.

"It delegitimizes our social right to smoke," Salimian said of the plan to keep smokers away from the library entrance. "I don't exactly see the point."

Demarius Walker, a CAS freshman, said he understood where administrators were coming from , but said he wouldn't accept a buffer zone at the library.

"I'd stare at the sign and still smoke," he said. "I'd protest."

Many students agreed that enforcement would be a problem.

"I don't even think it would work," said College of General Studies freshman Caroline Adley. "They would literally need someone to stand outside and tell people to stop smoking."

However it was enforced, Jack Griest, a nonsmoking junior in CAS, said that the buffer zone would be welcome. He said inhaling secondhand smoke "definitely bothered" him.

"I don't like walking out to a cloud of smoke," he said, after exiting the library through a group of smokers. "I don't think it would be too much to ask. It's not like you're telling them they can't smoke."

But many nonsmokers, such as CGS freshman Sarah Shilling, said having to navigate through the smoke briefly was not a big deal.

"I don't see why it's an issue, just walk a few more feet," she said. "It doesn't bother me."

BU School of Public Health professor Michael Siegel, who has researched the effects of chronic exposure to secondhand smoke, said being subject to smoke from those standing outside of doorways is more of a nuisance than a health risk.

"To an otherwise healthy person, it's not going to be harmful to have a short-term exposure to secondhand smoke," he said, although he said it could pose a threat to someone with asthma by triggering an asthma attack if they are particularly sensitive.

Despite the low risk to healthy individuals, Siegel said there seems to be little reason why smokers couldn't move over.

"I do think it's reasonable to make sure that nonsmokers don't have to have sustained exposure, especially where they can't easily avoid the smoker," he said.

At Myles Standish Hall, a relatively narrow entrance makes it difficult to avoid smokers.

During inclement weather, many take their cigarettes huddled under an awning that extends only a few feet from the doorway.

"You walk out the door and it's like clouds of smoke," said nonsmoker David Valbuena, a Myles resident and freshman in the College of Communication. "And it's not just one smoker, it's like five or six of them."

"It's really annoying and really gross," added School of Education sophomore Laura Leahy, who was eating dinner with Valbuena in the Myles dining hall.

As he smoked a few feet from the Myles entrance. SMG sophomore Eddie Yang said he was aware of his dormmates' displeasure.

"I haven't had complaints but I've had passive-aggressive dismissals," he said. "I've gotten looks and people muttering things under their breath."

At the library, Shukla suggests a sheltered designated smoking area away from the doorway as a potential compromise. Student Activities Office Executive Director John Battaglino, who worked with Shukla on the smoking proposal, said nothing had been finalized regarding the creation of a designated smoking area.

"Our goal is to create a comfortable environment for everybody," he said.

Some universities have gone to extremes against tobacco. The University of Kentucky banned all smoking on campus last November and the University of Maine plans to do the same in January. However, BU officials say this route is not feasible at an urban college.

"We're an open campus, we can't patrol the public walkways," Riley said.

Chris Ott, a spokesman for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the ACLU had not taken a definitive stance on buffer zones or the idea of "smokers' rights."

"The health concerns are well-documented enough to justify carefully tailored regulations in public places," he said.

But for now the debate on campus rages on as BU moves forward to increase enforcement outside of Mugar. On the ramp leading up to the library, CAS junior Jenna Kreyche and CAS senior Patrick Quinlan debated the issue as they smoked filtered Camel cigarettes.

Kreyche called a buffer zone a "terrible idea," noting that the overhang above the entrance provided the only shelter from the elements. She also argued that it wasn't too much of an imposition for nonsmokers to walk through a crowd of smokers.
But Quinlan saw it differently.

"I think it's reasonable," he said of a non-smoking perimeter. "It's my decision to smoke and I recognize people don't like the smell. I'd be happy to move away if that's what's best for the community."

This article originally appeared in The Daily Free Press at Boston University.