Winders: Let’s snuff out the idea of a smoking campus

Paul Mayne // Western News

After spending most of his journalism career in The States, most recently as executive editor of the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, Winders joined Western’s Masters in Environment and Sustainability program in 2009, and then the Western News as its editor in 2010.

I had my first cigarette when I was 19, sitting atop a barstool in Charleston, Illinois. I had my last when I was 32 years old, sitting on my front porch in Athens, Georgia. I can describe both moments in detail.

Between those two smokes were thousands of others – Dunhill Reds, mainly. And if I close my eyes, I can taste one right now. That’s addiction for you. You never forget.

Understand, I am not a rabid non-smoker today. Admittedly, I hate talking about the subject. It brings up all those old regrets – the minutes shaved off my life, the money I wasted. Worst of all, it makes me want to sneak outside for a quick one, right now.

But even as someone who still enjoys an occasional sidestep through a cloud of second-hand smoke, count me among those advocating for a smoke-free campus. As an institution of higher learning, we have no other choice.

This week, Western rolled out Let’s Clear the Air Here, an awareness campaign looking to engage the university community in a conversation about smoking policies on campus. As part of that, the university introduced three ‘clean air corridors’ in high-traffic, high-visibility areas where smoking will no longer be allowed. It was a good first step – just not far enough.

Listen, I get the university is in a tough spot.

When it comes to smoking, non-smokers demand action right now. Any sluggishness on the part of the organization is seen as an affront to their health and wellbeing. They see their exposure to second-hand smoke at their place of employment as unfair. Hard to argue that notion. If it were my kid, or my pregnant wife, walking through those nicotine plumes several times a day, I would demand quick action, too.

But when requiring a cultural shift of this magnitude, change happens bit by bit on this campus.

As an institution, we carefully line up every shot on the green – even the gimme putts. We consult with the caddie, kneel down behind the ball and then, maybe, line up to take our swing. Nevermind the rest of our foursome is playing the next hole. We don’t let them affect our game.

Don’t be fooled. Western is behind on this issue.

Nearly 1,620 U.S. universities have gone smoke-free. Major Canadian universities have yet to buy into smoke-free campus policies. Dalhousie instituted a smoke-free campus in 2003, the first major university in Canada to implement such a ban. More than 82 per cent of Dalhousie community members who responded to a 2003 survey supported the policy’s adoption.

I thought the province might summon the courage to make all campuses smoke free and save us the pain. That’s not happening right now. But a smoke-free campus is coming, eventually. It is just a matter of who is going to tell us to do it first.

For Western, this slow-and-steady progress is about creating a culture of respect between smokers and non-smokers. The university wants both sides to partner on a solution about smoking on campus, instead of making top-down rules for people to follow right now. That’s a fine way to go about the process, just so long as we end up at the correct destination.

I have been on the wrong side of this issue for a long time. What I failed to realize was the public smoking debate wasn’t about me, the smoker; it was about the nonsmoker and their right to live and work free of harassment.

If we are to remain consistent with our values as an institution of higher learning, one built on evidence, clear-headed thinking and collegiality, we must be a smoke-free environment for the greater good. And if this is the process by which we get there, then, despite how painfully incremental it is, it is the correct step.