Students spar over smoking debate

Freshman global affairs major Vernon Miles speaks with Student Government Senator Michael Schaffer regarding the university's smoking policy. (Jake McLernon)

UPDATED: Feb. 25, 2011

Students debated each other on Wednesday evening during a Student Government forum asking what student’s wanted George Mason University’s smoking policy to be.

The event invited students to share their opinion on the current, but largely unenforced, state-wide smoking ban that states that no one may smoke within 25 feet of a building. Mason currently has no smoking policy on record, but is required to comply with the state law.

Students were first able to listen to opening remarks from student senators Alex Williams and Michael Schaffer, with each senator picking a side of the debate; Williams leaned towards anti-smoking policies while Schaffer leaned towards pro-smoking policies, though both called for compromise.

“We really just want to hear what they students have to say, what their ideas are,” said Matthew Short, commissioner of the Smoking Policy Task Force and a student senator. The task force was created by Short and Williams to help find a middle ground between students in regards to the smoking policy.

According to Short, he hopes that a resolution or proposal can come from the forum and can be written so that it can filter through the departments and go to GMU President Alan Merten, where the resolution will then be refined and presented to the Board of Visitors, “who in the end decide everything,” said Short.

In his opening speech Schaffer suggested that students be given incentives to not smoke in front of doorways. One suggestion he gave was that if structures such as awnings or picnic tables were built farther away from buildings and designated for smokers, more smokers would migrate to these areas and not crowd around doorways. Schaffer said that he hoped Mason would not follow in the footsteps of nearby Towson University, which recently banned all smoking on campus. Schaffer also called for compromise between smokers and non-smokers, noting that the 25 foot rule must be obeyed.

In Williams’ opening speech he spoke about the effects of second hand smoke on people. He said while walking through a cloud of smoke may be a momentary annoyance to him, it could trigger an asthmatic attack in another person, mentioning that when his father visits the Johnson Center he often has to search for an entrance clear of smoke due to his asthma. Williams called it “unfair” that people have to go out of their way to find smoke-free areas due to many people’s disregard of the 25 feet rule. To help enforce the rule, Williams suggested that signs be put up to help designate non-smoking areas as well as moving smoking urns to the 25 feet boundary.

“I am a big proponent of personal rights,” said Williams, “Absolutely a smoker should have the right to choose to smoke if that is their choice they are voluntarily making. . .but the moment your action begins to impact my health and my well-being, that’s when we have a problem.”

Following the opening remarks students were given the opportunity to voice their opinions and speak in front of the group. Most students were in a general consensus that the 25 feet rule was acceptable, but needed to be enforced. Suggestions included defining what was 25 feet exactly, to fines to even calling on resident advisors to help enforce the ban.

Samantha Miller, a freshman with a condition similar to asthma, said it only takes a few moments of smoke exposure to make her throat close up. She suggested that all enforcement of the rule come from students because in her opinion it was unfair to create additional jobs for Mason police officers and resident advisers who are already overwhelmed, and that raising tuition to cover the expenses was not a viable option.

“The university has sort of dug itself into a hole at this point by not enforcing it before,” said Miller.

Senior Liz Kallman said while she is a nursing major she is also a smoker and knows the effects that smoking has on her body, but as an adult it is her choice to make, although she takes on the responsibility that comes with that choice.

“I am for. . .a designated smoking area. I am an intelligent human being, I’m over the age of 18, I made a choice to buy cigarettes, smoke it, and I, from my background, from my education background, I know exactly what it’s doing to my body," said Kallman, "But I also see that other people have the right to breathe clean air, so I take on the responsibility of being a smoker, and I take on the responsibility of being on a public university knowing that my actions affect other people."

Freshman Vernon Miles, who had previously in jest suggested the use of tasers to enforce the rule, volunteered to dress up as a cigarette butt and use blue tape to mark where the 25 feet ban ended.

“I will stand in the courtyard and measure around the buildings so people can see, and I will have tape with me, and I will mark [the boundary]. . .people will see it, people will know, they will go away and I’ll do it again,” said Miles who received a round of applause from the crowd.

The event drew nearly 70 students, said Speaker of the Senate Allyson Bowers, although the Facebook group had listed over 200 students as “attending.”

“I was kind of hoping to see a little more from the students because I know talking to a lot of my friends on the side [that] they were really enthusiastic about the issue,” said Bowers.

But for the people who did come, Bowers said, “I think that they were very passionate. . .a lot of them were very well spoken and they really articulated their opinions in the right way to get our response as Student Government members to be like ‘okay, these are things we need to concentrate on and these are things that students want,’ so I was really kind of excited about that.”

About 20 students came up and spoke to the group.

Because of the heated debates that took place on the event’s Facebook page, Student Government had Lieutenant Kevin Barrett of the Mason Police Department monitor the event.

“Originally it was because of some of the comments we were having on the Facebook [event page]. . .Our fear was that if things got out of control, if for some reason someone got a little bit fired up [there could be issue],” said Short.

However, at no point in the event did Short feel like police intervention was necessary.

“Everyone was very civil, everyone acted appropriately, I was very, very happy with that. It makes me feel good as a person that believes in some of the goodness of mankind that we really can, even on an issue like this, can sit down and have a very civil debate,” said Short.

The event was deemed to be a success by Short and other members of Student Government present at the event, and because of the large turn out a follow-up smoking debate will occur sometime after Spring Break.


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