University of Utah student Matt Miller has watched for years as his friends with severe asthma struggled to breathe — on a college campus that still permitted smoking.

While the health-damaging effects of secondhand smoke seemed obvious to Miller and other students, a series of student-led initiatives to ban tobacco use campuswide failed year after year to bring any substantive change.

So, in 2016, a frustrated Miller decided to lead the tobacco-free charge, bringing a board of students, faculty and staff together each month to craft a new policy that would be fair to smokers and nonsmokers alike.

That policy — which bans tobacco and e-cigarette use on campus and focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment for violators — was approved earlier this year by the U.’s Academic Senate. It will take effect July 1, 2018.

“This is a real benefit,” said Miller, 2017 vice president of the Associated Students of the U., which will result in ”a healthier campus community.”

The U.’s new policy comes more than a decade after campuses across the nation began enacting similar reforms. But the delay at Utah schools isn’t limited to the state’s flagship campus: only two other colleges in the state — LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and Dixie State University — have campuswide tobacco bans.

Officials at several Utah universities said they leave such changes to students, leading to gradual movement of the issue.

“These bans are really successful when they‘re student-led initiatives,” Westminster College spokeswoman Arikka Von said, arguing for leaving such measures to the student body.

But in Westminster’ case, that approach has meant students “have been debating this for several years,” she said — with little progress.

A move toward tobacco-free

Colleges across the U.S. began moving toward smoke-free and tobacco-free campuses more than a decade ago.

Changing social norms and a 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of secondhand smoke prompted higher-education institutions to pay attention to “the importance of protecting all members of the educational community from exposure to secondhand smoke,” according to a 2015 study conducted at the University of Toledo.

The American College Health Association also came out with a position statement on tobacco in 2009, which led to a significant boost in the number of colleges going tobacco-free, the study said.

Now, at least 1,913 colleges and universities nationwide have 100 percent smoke-free campuses. Of those, 1,611 are also 100 percent tobacco-free, meaning they also bar nonsmoking consumption of tobacco, according to the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a national lobbying group based in California.

“We expect this number to continue to climb rapidly as a result of the growing social norm supporting smoke-free environments, and support from within the academic community for such policies for campus health and well-being,” states the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights website.

Utah schools have been slow to join this list. With the exception of BYU, which has had a tobacco use ban since the school was founded, the first school to join the list was Dixie State in 2013.

It’s important to note, however, that all 10 of Utah’s largest colleges abide by state tobacco laws, which prohibit smoking in buildings and within 25 feet of building entrances.

A focus on rehabilitation

When the U. began crafting its tobacco policy, Chief Wellness Officer Robin Marcus said officials made sure both smokers and nonsmokers had input.

That’s one of the reasons, she said, that the policy focuses on rehabilitation, such as offering smoking-cessation help and education rather than sanctions for policy violators.

“No one will be dismissed from a job or suspended or expelled ... for the use of tobacco on campus,” Marcus said, adding that there is ”a large effort to provide resources for people who wish to quit using tobacco products.”

Punishments for smoking on campus grounds will be as follows:

  • First offense: verbal warning
  • Second offense: written warning
  • Third offense: Students get referred to the Dean of Students office for punishment and must successfully complete a tobacco-cessation program to have the violation expunged from their record. Employees will be fined $25 unless they attend a tobacco cessation meeting.
  • Fourth offense and beyond: Employees may receive an escalating schedule of fines until they reach $500. Their wages may be garnished if they don’t pay.

The tobacco-cessation programs will be free for those who wish to participate, Marcus said.

U. officials are waiting a year before enforcing the policy, Marcus said, to ensure individuals on campus are aware of it. They plan to put up signs in all common venues, as well as holding town-hall style meetings “both to inform and education but also get feedback about potential challenges.”

Marcus said the U. will advertise the meetings once they are scheduled.

Officials also are holding back on enforcing the policy to ensure all the kinks are worked out, she said, such as who will actually be enforcing it.

Additionally, the U. is considering designating spots on campus where smokers can go.  "One of the things that’s important to us also is that we be sensitive to specific issues we may not have thought of yet,” Marcus said.

“It is about health and we are a major university that has a major health care system attached to it,” she said. ”We feel like this is our opportunity to really … lead by example.”

Other Utah campuses

Some states, such as Ohio, have looked to their Board of Regents for guidance on policies at all state-funded schools.  But Utah’s regents have no plans to do that, said spokeswoman Melanie Heath.

“It‘s always been seen as an individual campus initiative,” Heath said.“Each campus has their own policies related to tobacco use.”

At Southern Utah University — which only enforces state law on tobacco use — a student tried and failed three years ago to instituted a ban on the Cedar City campus.

The student tried to push the cause through an online petition, focusing on harmful side effects of secondhand smoke, including health problems such as cancer, heart disease and asthma.

“We are all aware of the consequences of smoking but still, some people find it ‘worth’ doing even if they could get cancer and/or lung problems,” the petition said. “That‘s their decision and we cant change their minds. But ... what about nonsmokers? Why do WE have to put up with it?”

The petition received nine signatures — out of nearly 7,700 students enrolled that fall.