Students at the University of Hawaiʻi can breathe a bit easier this fall. All 10 campuses are now officially tobacco-free, in part due to the hard work of passionate public health students and alumni who helped to pass legislation this summer.
The tobacco-free campus advocacy movement started about seven years ago. Lisa Kehl, then a graduate student in the UH Mānoa Office of Public Health Studies and a student employee with the Health Promotion Program, began doing research on UH‘s tobacco policy.
“My grandmother died of emphysema when I was 13, and my mother has suffered from the disease for decades as a result of her childhood exposure to secondhand smoke,” Kehl said. “So when a colleague and fellow grad student, Pedro Haro, told me about his work in tobacco control and encouraged me to join in, I felt it was my calling, my kuleana.”
She discovered that tobacco policies differed across UH campuses. “We wanted to have consistency, to protect everybody from secondhand smoke,” said Kehl, now a prevention specialist for University Health Services Mānoa. She got to work, partnering with students from the Breathe Aloha Club and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network on policy changes.
Undergraduate student Chelsea Gonzales, who was then president of the Breathe Aloha Club, wanted to fight for a tobacco-free campus to spare others from some of the health problems she had developed due to secondhand smoke.
“Being around smokers is something I have managed my entire life,” Gonzales said. “Because of this, I have developed chronic allergies that are triggered by the slightest scent of secondhand smoke. Our best hope is to make sure that we never become addicted to these products in the first place.”
Kicking an unhealthy habit
Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the U.S. In Hawaiʻi, approximately 1,400 adults die every year from tobacco use, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
To better protect youth from the scourge of tobacco, five states—California, New Jersey, Oregon, Maine and Hawaiʻi—have raised the legal smoking age to 21. Hawaiʻi was the first state to pass the law in 2015.
As a result of their drive to protect the university community from secondhand smoke, Kehl and her team sought legislative support to resurrect Senate Bill 134, which bans smoking and tobacco use on all UH campuses and properties. More than 200 pages of testimony in support of the bill were submitted, and students went to the state Capitol to testify.
“Because the UH System is the largest provider of higher education in the state, this push to enforce tobacco-free campuses has such a great potential to reduce health burdens and smoking-caused productivity and monetary losses in Hawaiʻi, while increasing the overall quality of all 10 campuses,” said Gonzales in her testimony.
The bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Ige on July 10, 2018. All UH properties are now legally smoke-free.