Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Student Life Subcommittee gathers input from many on Smoke-Free Initiative

Editor’s note: On behalf of the Communications Subcommittee of the Smoke-Free University Initiative, the Record will report on how various sub-groups have gathered input prior to making final recommendations for the policy implementation. The first to be featured is the Student Life Subcommittee. Others to come in the weeks ahead include the Faculty and Staff Subcommittee, Facilities, Grounds and Ann Arbor Interface Subcommittee, and the Guest, Events and Athletics Subcommittee.

More than 1,500 students across the Ann Arbor campus have given input to one of several subcommittees that will help the university determine how best to move to a smoke-free campus.

The new policy is set to go into effect July 1, 2011, after a number of on- and off-campus constituencies have had a chance to weigh in on how to make U-M smoke-free in a way that is helpful to and respectful of smokers and non-smokers. And before the policy is in place, many more students are expected to give input into the process.

The Student Life Subcommittee led by Simone Himbeault Taylor, associate vice president for student affairs, consists of 24 members, 12 of whom are students. Many of the student committee members are, in turn, linked to many other students through their representative organizations.

The subcommittee is organized into three groups: 1) student input; 2) educational measures; and 3) health and wellness. This article highlights some of the findings from the student input group. The subcommittee is committed to making evidence-based recommendations informed by best practices and student input, Taylor says. To date, the team has conducted two surveys of random samples of students, and numerous targeted focus groups to get the student perspective.

“We are committed to engaging students in a transparent dialogue about implementation of this institutional policy through committee membership, surveys conducted at different points in the process, and an array of focus groups. The student voice is very important to this process,” Taylor says.

In Fall 2009, shortly after the subcommittee was assembled, an initial survey was sent to 5,000 randomly selected students to learn more about students’ smoking attitudes and behaviors. 1,332 responded (a response rate of more than 25 percent). Some key information revealed in the survey:

• 303 students reported smoking behaviors; half reported less than daily smoking. (Smoking behaviors were defined as smoking during specific activities or periods, as opposed to identification as a full-time smoker.)

• Stress was cited as the leading reason for smoking (67 percent), followed by smoking for relaxation (43), when drinking (39), when socializing (35), because of addiction (22) and for a buzz (15).

• Nearly 38 percent reported plans to quit, either within a year or after graduation.

• Nearly 55 percent of survey respondents said the move to a non-smoking campus would affect them, with more than 21 percent saying the impact would be considerable.

• Smoking cessation classes were listed by nearly 37 percent as important to help them with compliance. But less than 10 percent of students expressed a need for free weight management classes.

On the latter point, the survey and subsequent focus groups revealed that students overall are not as concerned about the health effects of smoking, says Todd Sevig, director of Counseling and Psychological Services.

“For students, we have different issues than for faculty and staff. For example, students are not overly concerned about weight gain when stopping smoking. Stress relief is more of an issue with students, which is helpful for us to know as we try to develop programs to help those who want to quit,” says Sevig.

Helping students cope with short-term and long-term stress is something the Division of Student Affairs has on its radar already, says Malinda Matney, senior research associate for the Division of Student Affairs.

“I don’t think that students smoke to ease stress came as a surprise to anyone,” Matney says. “Stress management is work we need to do anyway as a university. Part of creating a culture of wellness is weaving all of these parts together.”

In the survey, students also indicated one of their greatest concerns is how the university will enforce the policy, including how campus boundaries are defined and how U-M will resolve conflicts.

One of the students serving on the student life committee, Chris Chiles, LSA undergraduate, generally is opposed to the move to a smoke-free campus but agreed to participate with the group so that he could have a say in how the final policy is implemented.

“The first year must be low on enforcement as students adjust to the new policy. And, after it is in full effect, those who violate this policy should only be receiving information on appropriate places to smoke and where to receive help for smoking cessation. Anything beyond this would be unreasonable to enforce,” Chiles offers as a way to address compliance.

School of Public Health student Kathryn Waller says participation on the subcommittee has been very rewarding.

“Seeing a respectful exchange of ideas and opinions in these focus groups — despite feelings regarding what was viewed by most I talked to as an unpopular policy decision — was really cool, appreciated, and necessary for implementation of the policy,” Waller says.

“Students want to see clear, respectful, upfront communication about the transition to a smoke-free campus from the university. I think students felt left out of the decision-making process in regards to the campus going smoke free and now want to know exactly why the policy exists, what the boundaries of campus are, what the penalties are going to be, what resources will be offered, and how they can access these resources,” adds Waller.

Focus groups have occurred on the Central and North Ann Arbor campuses (Flint and Dearborn are implementing the policy their own way). The groups have included undergraduate and graduate students, international students, athletes, fraternity and sorority members, and student leaders, among others. Results of the survey were used to inform some of the focus group discussions, as were some generally held beliefs about students and smoking.

For one, Taylor says, the university thought the needs of international students might be greater and/or different than domestic students.

“By and large what the survey reveals is that the needs of international students are very much in line with the needs of their U.S. counterparts,” she says.

One concern, however, says John Greisberger, director of the International Center, is for the smoking relatives of these students, who tend to come for longer visits than parents, grandparents and siblings of students from this country.

“It’s a tough thing. Maybe some parents won’t come. Maybe some will come but they will be inconvenienced,” Greisberger says, adding that North Campus apartments have been smoke free for a year, which he says may already have helped to ease the transition for visitors.

The subcommittee is taking an iterative approach in forming recommendations. Currently, another student survey is being conducted to gather reactions to an initial set of recommendations. These will be refined based on survey findings. The subcommittee is preparing its report to make recommendations to the full Smoke-free Steering Committee in a few months.

The Smoke-Free Initiative is an outgrowth of MHealthy, an initiative that has the goal of improving the health of the U-M community. The decision to become a smoke-free campus was made by the university’s executive officers after receiving a recommendation developed by Dr. Robert Winfield, U-M’s chief health officer.

Winfield said it was students from the Residence Halls Association who first approached him and others seeking a solution to the problem of smokers gathering outside the entrances to residence halls.

The university built time into the implementation plan to allow for considerable input and to equip those most affected by the change with tools to succeed, whether they choose it as an opportunity to quit smoking or to adapt to the new policy, leaders say.

“This kind of cultural change will take time,” says Melaku Mekonnen, director of Family Graduate Student Apartments and member of the Student Life Subcommittee.