Alaska Editorial: Gamble's request from UA campuses points toward new policy

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Inevitable. That’s what some things are. You know them: death, taxes and extremely cold winters in Fairbanks.

Add tobacco-free to that list.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the University of Alaska could soon become a tobacco-free zone.

Lots of details remain to be worked out, of course.

One of the major ones becomes apparent in hearing that UA President Pat Gamble, acting on a request by the Board of Regents, has asked chancellors at the Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau campuses to bring a recommendation this month for making their institutions tobacco-free.

Notice the words “tobacco-free.” That’s much more than just “smoke-free,” raising the possibility that chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes could be prohibited.

Several lesser, though nonetheless problematic, issues could arise.

For example, what about contractors working on campus? The University of Alaska Fairbanks will have some construction going on next year. Will employees of the private companies doing that work have to leave their cigarettes and tins of chewing tobacco at home?

And what geographic area would a tobacco ban encompass? The area in the general vicinity of a university building? Or some sort or wide radius around each building? Or the entire acreage of a campus, including wooded areas like those at UAF? If not, what’s to stop an employee or student from wandering into the trees to light up?

Whatever the potential problems, university officials are in step with the times in wanting to end tobacco use on campus.

Smoking is already prohibited inside most UA buildings under a policy adopted by the Board of Regents in June 1997. The policy reads simply “Smoking will be prohibited in all nonresidential university facilities open to the public and all public areas of all residential university facilities.”

It’s clear, though, from public testimony and events that students want more. And President Gamble thinks that, like death and taxes and that deep Fairbanks cold, the Board of Regents will provide it.

Tobacco use harms not only a smoker’s or chewer’s health, and to a lesser extent those who inhale smoke secondhand, but also the university’s budget. That could be, aside from student agitation for change, a strong reason for regents to act.

President Gamble has cited a 2013 Ohio State University study of the annual cost to a private employer of someone who smokes tobacco. The cost: $5,816 per employee, a total that includes medical costs and lost productivity.

The Board of Regents would likely go gingerly — but go they should. Whatever they ultimately approve won’t go as far as a 2011 proposal that would have imposed a $600 annual health insurance surcharge on university employees who use tobacco products or who have dependents who use tobacco. That proposal was a part of a plan by university officials to help offset rising health care costs but was withdrawn after strong employee criticism.

That setback shouldn’t stall the effort.

Tobacco use will always be a health concern but will never be eliminated. Humans will continue to use tobacco far into the future. However, to the extent that its use can be minimized at public institutions such as the University of Alaska — or, better still, eliminated — it should be.

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