KEARNEY – A student group, UNK Peer Health Education, is rallying for support behind its proposal to make University of Nebraska at Kearney a tobacco-free campus.
On Feb. 26-27, UNK students will be asked in an email if they support Peer Health Education’s tobacco-free initiative. Pending the outcome, a proposal may be presented to the Chancellor’s Cabinet for consideration.
“This movement is about the health and wellbeing of the entire UNK community,” said Samantha Mitchell, president of Peer Health. “Most students prefer a tobacco-free campus, and it is well understood that tobacco is harmful not only to the user but to those around them. Going 100 percent tobacco-free promotes the health of all no matter where they are at on campus.”
The Peer Health team began exploring the issue in 2012 after learning student opinions from a national health survey at UNK indicated support for a tobacco-free campus. With support from the Buffalo County Tobacco Free Coalition and UNK’s Health Education Office, the Peer Health student team initiated the campaign.
UNK’s Clean Air Policy currently prohibits tobacco use in UNK facilities or vehicles, and within 10 feet of entrances or work sites on the grounds (in the open air). Similar policies are employed at UNO and UNL, except that UNL has at least two buildings with larger “halos” or smoke-free zones around the entrances. University of Nebraska Medical Center has been tobacco-free since 2009.
The UNK Peer Health students explored college and university policies all over the country and discovered this is a popular movement on college campuses. Of UNK’s 10 Board of Regents-designated peer institutions, five are already smoke- or tobacco-free, and two have initiatives in place. Mitchell said more than 1,100 colleges have already addressed student concerns by putting tobacco- or smoke-free policies in place.
Tobacco-free means no use of tobacco products at all, including chew and snuff in addition to smoked materials.
Mitchell and vice president Kaitlyn Smejdir said the project has been educational and required hard work. They and student body president Moses Moxey appear in a recent Peer Health YouTube video. They also have developed posters, fact sheets and other information materials.
“The reaction to our efforts has been very surprising,” said Smejdir. “What we knew for sure was that students would prefer such a policy, but we did not know what reaction we would get from faculty and staff. We expected them to push back, but it was the exact opposite.
“When discussing the matter with student groups and others from the UNK community, while numerous questions are brought up, nearly everyone has stated that they are in support of the movement,” Smejdir added. “It has been encouraging to receive emails and phone calls from different members of the UNK community thanking us for empowering them to speak up about their concerns with tobacco use on campus.”
UNK’s Staff Senate approved a resolution on Feb. 18 supporting a tobacco-free campus. A tobacco-free policy, if approved, would apply to all on UNK’s campus: faculty, staff and visitors in addition to students.
The Peer Health group knows there is opposition, most likely for those who promote the rights of individuals to make their own decisions about their health, especially to smoke or use tobacco outdoors where it’s not likely to bother others.
Still, Mitchell says the group is doing the right thing.
“We know many students want to live, learn, and play in a healthier environment,” Mitchell said. “Since people understand that tobacco products are unhealthy, an argument against such a movement is difficult to make.
“Our job is to engage, educate, and empower our peers to live healthier lives while in college and beyond. A tobacco-free UNK emphasizes this mission.”