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April 17, 2008


The University Times has reported that last year Pitt once again ranked in the top tier of U.S. public research universities along with six other schools. Against this sample of peer institutions, how does Pitt’s smoking policy — expanded last fall to ban smoking within 15 feet of buildings’ primary entrances and intake vents — stack up?

All seven universities prohibit smoking indoors. What about outdoors? Details vary, but let’s just compare how far a person can walk when leaving a campus building before legitimately running into smokers:

• UC-Berkeley: Smoking prohibited within 20 feet of entrances, exits, operable windows.

• UCLA: Prohibited within 20 feet of entrances, exits, operable windows.

• University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign: Prohibited within 15 feet of entrances, exits, windows that open, ventilation intakes.

• University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: Prohibited within “a reasonable distance” from building entrances.

• University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill: Prohibited within 100 feet of university facilities.

• University of Wisconsin-Madison: Prohibited within 25 feet of exits, entrances.

(Links to these policies are at

UNC calls its regulations a “no smoking” policy, while Wisconsin’s is “smoke-free.” The most recently published national study, based on data from 50 U.S. public universities, defines a complete smoking ban as one that prohibits smoking inside all buildings and outside building entrances (Halperin & Rigotti, 2003). Pitt’s policy happens to meet those criteria even though it was not written with the goal of achieving a smoke-free campus.

The American College Health Association position statement on tobacco on college and university campuses advocates a 20-foot outdoor perimeter. At 15 feet, Pitt’s perimeter, originally intended to match the 2006 Allegheny County regulation that later was overturned, is narrower than those at most of the other six. Interestingly, the widest perimeter in the bunch belongs to UNC, the only tobacco state institution.

Should schools whose outdoor smoking restrictions apply primarily to entry areas call themselves smoke-free? That hardly seems legitimate when at least one other large public institution, Indiana University, has achieved true post-tobacco status by completely banning smoking on campus.

Also, the designation is meaningless on campuses where policies at health science schools or affiliated hospitals are stricter. UPMC’s total smoking ban draws grumbles for relocating some of its smokers onto Pitt’s Oakland campus. The University of Rochester prohibits smoking entirely in and around its medical, dental and nursing schools and hospital, while outdoor smoking away from entryways is permitted on the rest of campus. Stanford’s School of Medicine recently banned tobacco everywhere on its campus — a more stringent policy than that of its parent university and its hospitals, which permit smoking beyond 20 feet of buildings. SUNY Upstate Medical University is completely smoke-free, though it is a self-contained health sciences campus.

Of course, parsing of policy details misses the larger point: that smoking remains a major public health problem, and that a progressive institution should exhibit leadership with policies based on the evidence of substantial research. Pitt’s new ReSET Center wants to address this obligation by bringing campus research experts and community leaders together to reduce tobacco exposure and inform public policy.

In March, the Senate’s benefits and welfare committee heard the administration’s first semi-annual report on Pitt’s revised smoking policy. The committee learned that no one has requested establishment of an official smoking-permitted zone, the administration’s alternative to active enforcement. We also learned that the number of formal complaints about violations has been negligible. Posting of discreet new “no smoking” signs on campus buildings is proceeding gradually.

Smoking cessation is the next item on Human Resources’ continuing Fitness for Life agenda: Targeted programs and new insurance coverage will be coming for employees who want to quit smoking. The benefits and welfare committee also has been brainstorming effective ways to publicize the revised policy.

“Pittsburgh has a pervasive culture of smoking,” observed Dr. Bernard Goldstein in the April 3 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, commenting on findings that he and Graduate School of Public Health colleague Dr. Jennifer Geiselhart report on the Pittsburgh Today regional indicators project web site. Culture is indeed the fly in the ointment in all tobacco-banishing policies.

Even if we could, on some technicality, describe our University as smoke-free, that designation is compromised substantially by our own smoke and the smoke around us. It remains to be seen whether, over the long run, the Pitt community can sustain the political and personal will needed to make incremental but lasting progress against the aggregate entrenchment of individual habits and toward improved health for all.

Patricia Weiss, chair of the University Senate benefits and welfare committee, is a reference librarian at the Health Sciences Library System.

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