Student leaders hope to change smoke-free campus law for SIUE

News-DemocratJune 21, 2014 

By next summer, all of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville will be a non-smoking zone - but some students are hoping to prevent that, and they question whether people will even comply..

Student body president Nasir Almasri doesn't smoke. But the Chicago native said he respects the concerns of smokers, and believes the recent Smoke-Free Campus Act didn't take into account the unique geography of SIUE.

Almasri said the student government surveyed its fellow students, held open forums and listened to ideas.

"What we found is that a lot of students didn't feel it should be completely banned," Almasri said. "Smokers and non-smokers alike liked the idea of smoking areas, rather than a smoke-free ban."

For a college like the University of Illinois, Almasri said, it's a simpler thing to walk off the campus. "You can just go across the street," he said. "Here, it's not possible."

SIUE encompasses 2,660 acres, much of it woodland and bluffs with a central campus area that is a good distance from the edge of university property.

"The bigger issue, in my opinion, is students who live on campus and staff who work all day," Almasri said. "You can't really walk off the campus. You have to get in a car, drive 5-7 minutes off campus... You could be gone for 20-30 minutes for a cigarette. Especially for the staff, it just isn't feasible."

But the Smoke-Free Campus Act has passed the state legislature, and ordered all campuses smoke-free by July 1, 2015. SIUE spokesman Doug McIlhagga said the only thing they were willing to say was that the university would comply with the new law, which first requires an implementation committee formed by January 2015.

SIU President Randy Dunn said he met with Almasri in May, and heard the requests for designated smoking areas on the large campus.

"I did not disagree with his thinking," Dunn said. "However, as you know, (the legislation) has passed and that statutory language is clear that only two exceptions are provided for a campus."

The only exceptions listed in the act are smoking in private vehicles parked on the campus or traveling through the campus. Dunn said since there is no additional authority permitted for smoking areas, they "have no choice" but to follow the law.

Union leaders could not be reached for comment. SIUE employees are represented by several unions, including AFSCME, with the sole exception of tenure-track faculty members.

Almasri said he hopes that others will join with him in lobbying Springfield for a change to the law before it is implemented. He said there are others in student government who have heard the complaints, and not just from smokers.

"Unless the state plans on paying someone to go around and ticket offenders, I don't think the school has the resources for it," Almasri said. "The students are going to ignore it and smoke anyway."

Almasri gives tours to new students, and he said he doesn't want to explain to them that SIUE is a nonsmoking campus and then walk past a pile of cigarettes lying in front of a "smoke-free" sign -- as he has observed at other campuses.

"From the state's perspective, I'm sure it sounds like a great idea, but we don't see the feasibility of it," Almasri said.

Given that it is summer session, Almasri said he doesn't know how many students are fully aware of the new ban, but several have contacted him about it already. From his personal perspective, he doesn't smoke.

"In fact, I have a rather harsh reaction to secondhand smoke, but I understand it is people's right to smoke," he said. "Creating this law isn't going to stop it."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 618-239-2507.

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