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A University of Wisconsin Oshkosh task force will survey the campus community to determine the level of support for going tobacco-free, campus-wide.

Funded by an American Lung Association “Spark” mini-grant, students, staff and faculty will be asked for feedback on the potential establishment of a tobacco-free campus policy. Two students are serving as co-chairs of a new, related task force, which also includes members of the UW Oshkosh Health and Safety Committee and representatives of area and state health agencies. The group plans to administer the survey before May.

University administrators support the preliminary examination of whether there is campus-community backing for such a major policy change.

Task force members stressed the first, crucial step is gauging the opinions of students, staff and faculty on the use of tobacco products at UW Oshkosh, its perceived impact on the overall health of the campus community and the level of support for a tobacco-free policy.

“What we are interested in learning from students and colleagues is whether UW Oshkosh is, like many other campuses, ready to consider making the cultural change necessary to become a tobacco-free campus,” said Randy Hedge, chair of the University’s Health and Safety Committee and a task force member.

“We need to spend this semester appropriately seeking and collecting the campus community’s feedback before any decision to implement or not implement a policy is proposed,” Hedge said. “If there is support for a tobacco-free campus, and our campus shared governance groups endorse an official policy, the earliest implementation would occur is summer 2013. Right now, our job is to invite students, faculty and staff to share their opinions and to listen.”

If the spring survey results indicate support for a tobacco-free campus, the advisory task force would use responses to help develop specific policy details. That proposal would be collaboratively developed, shared and considered by campus governance groups this fall, according to the task force’s tentative timelines.

UW Oshkosh, the third-largest institution in the UW System, is not the first state campus to explore such a policy.

UW- Stout and UW-Baraboo/Sauk County are already tobacco-free campuses. Other UW-System institutions currently exploring policies are UW-Whitewater, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Platteville and UW-River Falls.

With colleges and universities around the United States daily going tobacco-free, it is difficult to get a completely accurate tally of institutions that have enacted partial or total tobacco-free policies on their campuses. The American Lung Association put the number of “tobacco-free” campuses (prohibiting all tobacco products) at 270 as of March this year. Hundreds of additional campuses have gone “smoke-free,” prohibiting smoking of cigarettes and other products but continuing to allow the use of smokeless tobacco products.

The UW Oshkosh task force cites the encouragement of the American College Health Association to explore and, with support, enact tobacco-free policies on campuses. The ACHA’s “Position Statement on Tobacco on College and University Campuses” states that it “has adopted a NO TOBACCO USE policy and encourages colleges and universities to be diligent in their efforts to achieve a 100% indoor and outdoor campus-wide tobacco-free environment.”

A recent ACHA-National College Health Assessment of more than 13,000 students found 85 percent “described themselves as non-smokers (never smoked or have not smoked cigarettes in the last 30 days)…” That mirrors UW Oshkosh-specific data from fall 2010, which showed 71.9 percent of students reporting no use of cigarettes in the 30 days prior to assessment, with another 16.1 percent stating they had smoked but not within that time period.

For years, UW Oshkosh organizations and initiatives have aimed to curtail tobacco use and educate the campus community about its dangers. The efforts have included the campus Counseling Center’s “You Know You Want to Quit” campaign, annual “Great American Smoke-Out” collaborations and smoking cessation programs offered through the Student Health Center. In 2009, UW Oshkosh Continuing Education sponsored a tobacco-free summit in Madison.

Currently, UW Oshkosh prohibits smoking inside all campus buildings, including residence halls, and within 25 feet from any building entrance.

If the campus community and shared governance groups support the change to a tobacco-free campus, the task force will seek additional grant-funding to facilitate policy implementation early next year. Those funds would support signage and other materials to help educate the University community and encourage cooperation with the new policy.

Stephanie Krueger, a UW Oshkosh student co-chair of the task force, said if the campus community signals support for a tobacco-free campus, the goal would be to do far more than simply institute new rules.

Krueger and task force members said they understand the crucial work necessary to listen, educate and support students, staff, faculty, campus visitors and even campus neighbors if the policy change is eventually enacted. That includes stressing the value of self-enforcement.

“We do not want to ask or expect our University Police to conduct no-smoking patrols and write out tickets,” Krueger said. “If tobacco-free is what UW Oshkosh wants, then what our task force wants to see is a healthy campus community willing and able to police itself – a community of individuals embracing a change that they believe will improve the overall health of our educational home and workplace.”

Pamela MacWilliams, Health and Safety Committee member and director of the UW Oshkosh Student Health Center, said her department would continue to promote and offer smoking cessation programs and support for campus community members who decide to quit smoking as the result of an approved policy change.

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