By Cody Worsham
Judith Sylvester arrived on LSU’s campus 20 years ago sick of smoke.
Now a professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Sylvester grew up inhaling her stepfather’s secondhand fumes. When she entered the working world, she shared a cubicle with a smoker, and when she moved in the mid-90s to Baton Rouge to work at LSU – which, at the time, allowed indoor smoking – she found herself in an office down the hall from a pipe enthusiast.
“I had to keep my door closed and had to avoid him as much as possible,” she recalled.
No matter how hard she tried, though, Sylvester couldn’t avoid the fumes.
“I’ve been on campus 20 years,” she said, “and I’ve had to deal with secondhand smoke every day I’ve been on campus.”
After August 1, however, she’ll deal with it no more, as LSU becomes a tobacco-free campus, in accordance with and under the authorization of state law. Act 211, passed in 2013, requires all public post secondary schools to be smoke-free and authorizes them to develop tobacco-free policies.
“This is the most I could have possibly hoped for,” said Sylvester.
“Non smokers don’t get that. They just think, It doesn’t affect me, but it does. Instead of billions of dollars going to LSU and the state’s universities, which really need the money, their tax dollars are going to preventable health care expenses.”
As is the case with most suffering from nicotine addictions, LSU didn’t drop the habit easily. Sylvester kickstarted the cold turkey charge in 2000, when she founded SmokingWords. Through the on-campus tobacco education and tracking program, Sylvester partnered with students and researchers at LSU and Southern University, as well as organizations like the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free Living, to study the effects of on-campus smoke and educate the public on those effects.
Their findings were clear: Tobacco is costly. Smoking can take decades of life from people – smokers live an average of 14 years shorter than non-smokers – and it also has a fiscal price tag, costing the state $1.15 billion in direct medical spending and $1.66 billion in lost productivity, meaning smoking is a problem whether you or your neighbor is the one lighting up.
“Non smokers don’t get that,” Sylvester said. “They just think, It doesn’t affect me, but it does. Instead of billions of dollars going to LSU and the state’s universities, which really need the money, their tax dollars are going to preventable health care expenses.”
Despite the obvious drawbacks, however, snuffing the school’s tobacco addiction was almost always an uphill battle. LSU’s tobacco-usage rate dropped from 29 percent to 22 percent in SmokingWords’ first four years; then, Katrina and Rita struck, their hurricane-level winds bringing with them a spike in stress – and, accordingly, smoking.
Most disheartening to Sylvester was the increase in students who became smokers after arriving on campus, which corresponded with an increase in marketing campaigns from Big Tobacco targeted at those same students.
Discouraging though it was, it was also motivating.
“That kept me going,” she said.
In 2007, the smoke-free movement scored a minor victory when the Louisiana Legislature passed the Smoke-free Air Act, prohibiting smoking inside restaurants, workplaces with two or more employees, and public buildings. Though it didn’t include specific language about college campuses, Sylvester was encouraged.
“That breathed some new life into us,” she said.
That gust of wind in the flagship’s anti-smoking sails would carry the movement forward, at a time when Sylvester needed in the most. By the fall of 2010, she was on sabbatical and considered, briefly, taking a hiatus from the fight to stop on-campus smoking. But watching others pick up the slack in her absence – and seeing the problem continue to worsen – encouraged her to fight on.
“Seeing these [smoking] rates continue to climb among college students and continuing to see tobacco companies focus their efforts on students – and by the way, that is still going full tilt – that got me back into it.”
And just in time. When she returned from sabbatical in 2011, both the LSU Faculty Senate and Student Government passed resolutions prohibiting smoking within 25 feet of building entrances and exits, and both called for the campus to be either smoke-free or tobacco-free by fall 2012.
It was the first of many major victories. Soon, Act 211 passed, ensuring a smoke-free policy at LSU by the fall of 2014, but leaving other tobacco products – like chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes – unaffected. Then came Gov. Bobby Jindal’s April 2014 “Well Ahead” program, a public health initiative which rewards employers, schools, health care providers, universities, child care centers and restaurants which meet certain criteria as WellSpots.
“It was really clear as flagship institution, we had to qualify,” said Sylvester, “and to even qualify for the program’s lowest rung, you have to have a tobacco free campus. So our policy became tobacco free.”
It was the decisive blow for tobacco on campus, but Sylvester knows the road to complete eradication has only just begun.
“There’s plenty of battles left to fight,” she said.
Among those are simply informing the public of the tobacco-free policy, which applies to visitors, too – a tall task come tailgating time.
Sylvester said public knowledge of the policy is important, but even more crucial is knowledge of why the policy is important.
“We’ve got a solid bit of information on campus but that will be the push for the fall – knowing not just that there is a policy, but why there is a policy,” she said. “It’s not because we have to because it’s the law. It’s because we should, because it’s the best thing for our campus, our students, our faculty, and our state.”
Enforcement will also be a challenge. Other than a fine for tobacco litter, there are no tangible ways for the university to punish tobacco-users on campus. The policy itself vaguely refers only to “warning letters,” “conversations,” and unspecified “disciplinary sanctions” for repeated violators.
“It is a challenge, let’s not pussyfoot around that,” Sylvester said, “and we’re not expecting people to know about it and comply immediately. We plan to be very gentle for the fall semester, using push cards to get the word out.”
Meanwhile, the Student Health Center will offer one-one-one cessation counseling, nicotine replacement therapy, and a four-session educational series – all of which look to nip Big Tobacco in the bud.
“We have to be successful in preventing non-smokers from arriving on campus and becoming smokers,” Sylvester said. “There’s no reason for college students to smoke, and there’s plenty of reasons not to.”
Sylvester is optimistic – or, as she puts it, “not pessimistic” – that the policy will produce tangible results, but she’s also realistic. She knows smoking, dipping, vaping, hookah-ing, and every other sort of tobacco consumption will, in some form or fashion, continue on campus. But if she’s learned anything in this 14-year fight, Sylvester knows that when progress comes, it comes in small steps.
“If we can reduce the 30 percent rate among undergraduates to national average – 18 percent – that’s victory,” she said. “Right now, it doesn’t have to be complete eradication – although it does eventually. If we can make a huge dent in the awareness and let people know there are no safe tobacco free products, including e-cigarettes, that’s victory.”
7,777: Average number of smokers per day on LSU’s campus. Fuming.
600,000: Estimated annual number of premature deaths due to inhalation of secondhand smoke. Lethal.
$1.15 billion: State dollars spent in Louisiana on direct medical care for diseases and symptoms caused by smoking. Costly.