Sometimes even the best of intentions have unintended consequences. Despite careful consideration, planning, and purity of motive, it turns out to be a mistake. Reality is often more complex than our attempts to give it order. We are five years in to the University’s decision to go smoke-free, which seems as good a milestone as any to assess how the policy has worked out in reality.
Certain areas around the Hamilton campus have become default smoking areas. Hillcrest road on any given day is where the policy can be seen in action. Students, faculty, and visitors to the University congregate on the sides of the road for their nicotine fix. It is a public roadway and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the University’s smoke-free policy. It is even clearly marked out on the campus smoke-free map as a place you can go to smoke; the question in retrospect is whether this is the image we want to present to the wider community. The road is one of the public faces of the University, regularly used by the general public, local residents, and students from the local primary and secondary schools.
For some of these young students, the University will be the next stage of their educational career and the example being set for them of the type of environment they will be stepping into is, at best, a questionable one. The rarefied halls of academia are an exemplar to the wider community, and the question of whether the University has considered this example being set for the malleable minds of the next generation is a stark one.
In the years since the policy was enacted new devices have risen in popularity to help smokers give up cigarettes. The use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices allow former smokers to receive the nicotine previously provided by smoking but without inhaling ignited plant material. It is well documented that smoking has been linked to various forms of cancer and that the mechanism of carcinogenesis is related to the incineration process. The nicotine replacement devices have the support of the Ministry of Health as an effective alternative to help those who smoke to quit cigarettes. It stands to reason that a University which prides itself on its science programs would stand behind a research-based policy and yet, in the years since implementing the smoke-free policy, it has systematically included all forms of vaping devices and electronic cigarettes. This has had the effect of marginalising their students committed to becoming smoke-free and undercutting their own promise to provide support for students attempting to give up smoking.
A couple of weeks ago Hamilton City Council voted on a resolution to ban smoking and vaping in the city’s public spaces, including Civic Square, Garden Place, and Victoria on the River. Before the vote, an amendment was put forward and subsequently passed by a clear 40% margin to remove vaping from the policy. The councillor who put the amendment forward, Cr Mark Bunting, was quoted by Stuff as saying “I personally don't like the look of vaping but that's not for me to decide in this case. I think decisions have to be made on sound medical evidence.”
Auckland City Council was faced with a similar decision in the late stages of last year and voted to ban smoking on beaches, in popular public spaces and in all council-licensed al fresco dining areas affecting over 800 cafés, restaurants, and bars. The policy specifically excluded vaping as vaping devices do not contain tobacco products.
The University of Auckland maintains a similar policy, taking their definition of “smoking” from the New Zealand legislation concerning the issue: The Smoke-free Environments Act 1990. That Act sets out the definition of smoking as the incineration of tobacco leaf products or other products derived from plant material, the function of which is primarily inhalation of the smoke. It excludes incense and, more importantly, it also excludes products “supplied wholly or principally for use as an aid in giving up smoking”. The University of Auckland was, however, careful to implement access provisions to prevent discrimination against students, faculty and visitors who might be forced into a difficult position by their policy; something conspicuously absent from the University of Waikato document.
When the policy was first announced back in 2013, then Vice-Chancellor Roy Crawford was quoted as saying "We’ve planned a long phase-in period to allow for significant communication and consultation with staff and students, including a provision of support for smokers who wish to become smoke-free."
It is anybody’s guess as to how much consultation was actually done and what kind of considerations were made as a part of that process. It is unknown, for instance, whether the University considered the accessibility issues the policy might precipitate for students, faculty, and visitors for whom the arduous trek to the public roadways bordering the University would be challenging. It is also unknown whether that aspect of the policy could be considered to be discriminatory and therefore in conflict with other areas of the University’s own policy documentation. The University of Auckland was conscientious in navigating that area, as were Massey University who created designated smoking areas on their campuses to accommodate accessibility issues.
Nexus spoke to some of the smokers on the roadside and the common refrain was that, given an alternative, they would not choose to smoke out there on the street in full view of the children running past but had been given no alternative.
For five years now the University of Waikato has been a smoke-free environment. This has provided ample time to assess the impacts of the policy. While it contains elements that are mirrored in numerous other policy documents from councils and Universities around the country, the flow-on effects have not been officially addressed here. There is a clear movement around New Zealand for smoke-free environments. The question that different institutions around the country have set out to answer is how to implement a coherent policy that balances that outcome with the rights of individuals while limiting unintended consequences. Whether the University of Waikato’s policy has achieved that remains to be seen.