On January 1, 2018, the American University of Beirut will be declared tobacco-free. This presidential initiative brings AUB in line with thousands of universities around the world that promote health and wellbeing on campuses by prohibiting the use of tobacco products, indoors and out.
“AUB is determined to maintain its role of modeling a better society, and it is essential that we take the lead on important and forward-looking ideas—just as we did when we admitted women students in the 1920s,” said President Fadlo Khuri. “Making AUB fully tobacco-free will be a transformative change leading to a more beautiful and wholesome campus as well as a healthier campus community.”
President Khuri officially announced this initiative in his President’s Perspective of March 14, 2017 and created a high-level task force to review the evidence, develop a tobacco-free campus policy, and plan for all aspects of implementation, enforcement, and evaluation.
Around 6 million people die annually from tobacco use. In Lebanon, 4,000 deaths per year are attributable to tobacco-caused diseases and the prevalence of smoking nargileh among youth aged 13-15 is the highest in the region. Lebanon has a problem with tobacco and it does not seem to be getting any better.
AUB has taken an evidence-based approach to the issue of smoking on campus, looking at best practices from other institutions and gathering statistics on smoking among current students, faculty, and staff. What the research has proven is that instituting a tobacco-free policy on a university campus leads to less smoking.
In the US, more than 1,700 college campuses ban smoking, and the majority are fully tobacco-free. Tobacco-free policies go further than smoke-free policies in prohibiting the use of any tobacco product, including electronic cigarettes. In addition, they prohibit the sale or free distribution of tobacco products on campus and prohibit student organizations from accepting money, advertising, or gifts from tobacco companies.
Evaluations done at these tobacco-free universities have found an increase in quit attempts among students and employees and, for those that did not succeed in quitting, a decrease in consumption.
“The rationale is that smoke-free environments promote healthy behavior,” said Rima Nakkash, chair of the task force and associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences. “In a campus that educates students, you want to prevent new students coming in from taking up smoking and you want to provide a clean enabling environment for smokers considering quitting.”
A community-based approach
The Task Force on a Tobacco-free AUB is a broad and heterogeneous group of faculty, staff, and students with broad representation across the campus and medical center. It includes current smokers to get their perspective on facilitators and barriers to effective implementation and enforcement.
The task force has been hard at work since March, surveying the evidence and the experiences of other universities and gathering feedback from within the AUB community. The policy will come into effect in January, with enforcement and evaluation efforts extending for several years.
Plans include educating the community about the policy and adding information about it to orientations sessions. Making smoking cessation programs more widely accessible and affordable is a key component of the policy. Enforcement is also a primary concern and, for this, the task force is taking a community-driven approach.
“This should not, and will not, only be the responsibility of the Protection Office,” explained Nakkash. “Enforcement will be within a program involving students, staff, and faculty in a response team trained on how to approach violators appropriately, communicate to them about the policy, and guide them, if they want, to smoking cessation services.”
Campus smoking areas will begin to be phased out this summer and careful planning is taking place to mitigate issues related to off-campus smoking, such as litter and crowds of smokers outside the gates. A student competition has been launched by the AUB Neighborhood Initiative to come up with innovative and sustainable solutions to address those concerns.
Enabling a healthier future
President Khuri, who has spent his entire professional career treating the victims of tobacco-related illness, has emphasized this initiative is not about judging those who choose to smoke, but more about creating an environment where young people are not encouraged to view smoking as an acceptable activity.
“I hope others will follow us on this socially responsible path, but even if they do not, at least we can be sure we have done the right thing,” President Khuri told us. “If just a handful of students come to AUB and avoid the scourge of tobacco addiction, or staff members manage to rid themselves of this destructive habit, it will have been worth the effort.”