A move to make Northeastern University smoke-free is stirring controversy on campus around issues of civil rights and questions of enforceability.
University administrators announced in December that they had formed a committee that includes staff and students to weigh the initiative, which would make Northeastern the newest of at least 1,130 colleges nationwide to create smoke-free campuses.
Administrators acknowledged that the issue is complicated at a sprawling urban campus such as Northeastern, because of questions about where the campus ends and where Boston begins.
John Auerbach, the director of the Institute on Urban Health Research at Northeastern and the former state health commission, is heading the committee with Terry Fulmer, Dean of the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. The committee held a public forum on the issue January 29 that drew equal numbers of supporters and opponents.
Auerbach acknowledged that the mechanics of the ban would be tricky.
“It doesn't have the ability to have any kind of a ban on public property, and public property includes the sidewalks of city streets and streets themselves,” Auerbach said. “Any public land would be places that people can smoke, and so the sidewalks and whatnot that are adjacent to the campus property would continue to be [available to smokers] if such a ban were put into place.”
Fulmer said she began thinking about a ban as soon as she became dean in October 2011.
“Something that really struck me as I joined the community was it was noticeable to me that there is a fair amount of smoking on campus,” she said.
Currently, Northeastern's smoking policy bans smoking in any building, but students and faculty can light up once outside.
A number of schools and other institutions in Boston are already smoke-free, including Wentworth Institute of Technology, The Boston Conservatory, Tufts Medical Center and the Boston University Medical Campus.
The pros and cons of a smoking ban at Northeastern have prompted debate between students concerned with civil rights and those concerned with public health.
Emma McGrath, a freshman journalism student at Northeastern, is not a smoker, but doesn't think the initiative is fair.
“Smoking is a lifestyle choice – one that is legal for people over the age of 18 in Massachusetts,” she said. “For Northeastern to prohibit it entirely would be an overstepping of boundaries.”
McGrath said that while she understands concerns about secondhand smoke, assigning specific designated areas for smoking would be a better idea than banning it completely.
Other students disagree. Angela Mroz, a sophomore majoring in environmental studies, believes that stricter smoking rules are critical to health.
“Smoking is a matter of public health, and I think it's kind of unfair to leave the health of others in the hands of smokers,” said Mroz.
Mroz, who also is director of administration for a group called NU HEAT (Northeastern University Husky Environmental Action Team), said the school could make designated smoking areas for students, but added that because the school is in a city, “it's not that hard to step off campus for 10 minutes.”
NU HEAT has discussed the initiative at its meetings, and members support efforts to promote clean air. They are hoping to form a coalition with other student organizations and get more people involved.
Fulmer said that because the initiative is in its very early stages, it's hard to say how it will be enforced. She said the committee plans to research the experiences of other smoke-free colleges.
“This is a public health strategy, not a law enforcement strategy. Enforcement is the last thing on our minds,” she said.
Julie Roberts, a third-year law student at Northeastern and co-founder of Northeastern's chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, is a recovering smoker. Speaking at the forum, she questioned whether the ban would actually be effective in helping smokers to quit.
“We don't believe that our university should be pursing punitive policies that are most likely going to punish students for having an addiction,” she said.
Roberts said she was pleased to hear that this month, Northeastern’s Health and Counseling Services launched a free program available to students called “Ready to Quit!” that involves both medication therapy and behavioral health therapy.
About 50 people attended the first of several forums planned to discuss the issue. Fulmer is hopeful that a decision will be made on whether to pursue the ban by the end of the spring 2013 semester.
"We want to listen to our community and come up with a reasonable set of expectations,” she said. “We intend to listen, we intend to learn, and we intend to understand. “
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.