Opinion: For the sake of public health, make the U of A smoke-free

Recently, the University of Alberta joined 29 post-secondary institutions across Canada in adopting the international Okanagan Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. This global compact was created in 2016 at an international conference of post-secondary institutions convened in Kelowna. The charter requires participating institutions to embed health into all aspects of campus culture and to lead health promotion action locally and globally.

In speaking to the recent adoption of the charter by the University of Alberta, president Bill Flanagan stated, "Today's signing of the Okanagan Charter encourages us to redouble our efforts. As a community we are responsible to each other. Together we can continue to build and strengthen our healthy university campus."

Adopting the Okanagan Charter is a good step. Now the university can demonstrate its commitment to the charter and to public health by joining the rapidly growing number of post-secondaries that have made their campuses completely smokefree. Almost 100 Canadian universities and colleges have decided to promote and protect public health by making their campuses completely smoke-free.

Tobacco is the leading avoidable cause of disease, disability and premature death in Canada, claiming 50,000 lives annually. Commercial tobacco use has no place in higher learning and it compromises public health, learning outcomes and productivity. Educational institutions should not be sanctioning the most widespread and deadly form of substance misuse on their campuses.

By making its property smoke-free, the U of A will be aligning restrictions on tobacco and nicotine with those on cannabis. The university continues to stigmatize cannabis users and to defy one of the cornerstones of legalization by placing stronger restrictions on cannabis than tobacco. Yet tobacco kills more Canadians than cannabis.

A smoke-free campus will also help to denormalize commercial tobacco use among a very important population: youth and young adults. Thousands of children and adolescents visit campus facilities and events and they should not be exposed to smoking or vaping. To a sixyear-old, smoking is smoking whether it involves tobacco, cannabis, nicotine or vaping. Modelling is an essential element of childhood development and the more smoking cues that children are exposed to, the more likely they are to become smokers themselves. For this reason, kids must be protected from exposure to smoking and vaping in all public places.

Young adults have the highest smoking rates of any age group. Post-secondary institutions should be providing students with support and incentives to quit and preparing them for a smokefree workplace. Universities and colleges should not be aiding and abetting tobacco dependence, chronic disease and premature death.

The explosive rise in youth vaping in recent years provides even more rationale to create a smoke-free campus.

Over 400,000 youth in grades 6 to 12 are using vaping products according to Health Canada's latest survey. Post-secondary institutions should not be facilitating a nicotine epidemic especially since youth who vape are three times as likely to start smoking.

The U of A can walk the talk on health promotion and fulfil the Okanagan Charter by banning commercial tobacco use and vaping. Overriding provincial legislation exempts the use of sacred tobacco by Indigenous people for ceremonial purposes. Commercial tobacco use is an enormous public health problem that must be curtailed at all levels including the post-secondary system.

Public school boards across Alberta banned smoking and vaping on their property years ago. Many Grade 12 students who begin their studies at the university must be surprised to find that smoking and vaping remain virtually unrestricted on outdoor campus property.

Of the 100 campuses that have gone smoke-free across Canada, four are in Edmonton, including NAIT, Concordia University of Edmonton, Norquest College and King's University. Smoking rates among the trades occupations are some of highest in the country and this did not stop the largest trade school in Edmonton from making its property smoke-free.

The U of A will soon be making a decision on a proposed smoke-free policy that has been years in the making. A report produced by the university's Senate Task Force on Wellness in 2003 called for a total ban on smoking on all university property and smoking cessation support for faculty, staff and students.

A students'union plebiscite on a smoke-free campus policy was held during the student council elections in 2006. At the time, a strong majority of students voted in favour of a campus-wide policy to restrict smoking to selected designated areas and to provide stop-smoking treatment for students. The support would likely be higher in 2021.

The issue came up again in 2018 as the university prepared for the legalization of cannabis. The university decided to create a few restricted areas for cannabis consumption while allowing tobacco smoking and vaping to continue virtually unrestrained. This double standard is impossible to justify given the disproportionately high public health impact of tobacco use.

The U of A needs to walk the talk on public health by putting an end to the smoking and vaping of commercial tobacco and nicotine on its property.

It's time to be a healthy role model in the community and to protect children, youth and young adults from commercial tobacco use. It's time to join many institutions of higher learning across Canada by walking the talk on public health. It's time for the university to live by its mantra "for the public good" and to demonstrate its commitment to the Okanagan Charter by making its campuses completely smoke-free. 

Doug Wilson, professor emeritus and former dean of medicine, University of Alberta; Kim Raine, distinguished professor, U of A School of Public Health; Louis Francescutti, professor, U of A School of Public Health; Candace Nykiforuk, professor, U of A School of Public Health; Timothy Caulfield, professor, U of A Faculty of Law and School of Public Health; Dilini Vethanayagam, professor of medicine, U of A Department of Medicine (Respirology); Kue Young, professor emeritus and former dean, U of A School of Public Health; Faith Davis, professor emeritus and former vice-dean, U of A School of Public Health. 
This opinion piece first appeared in the Edmonton Journal on June 4, 2021. 


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