Health Watch/U.P. Health Department/Ray Sharp

Everyone knows that smoking is harmful to health, yet up to a million Americans begin smoking every year. Studies show that a majority of tobacco users begin smoking before age 18, and nearly all lifelong smokers are hooked before age 21, so prevention efforts traditionally focus on youth.

You probably know that smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, leading to more than 440,000 deaths per year, including about 50,000 smoking-related deaths as a result of secondhand smoke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokers die on average 10 years earlier than non-smokers, from heart disease, cancer, lung disease and other chronic conditions.

This kind of information is important to share with children, at home and at school, but to reduce the numbers of new tobacco users, we can do more, like being vigilant in enforcement of youth tobacco laws, raising the price of cigarettes and other tobacco products, and creating tobacco-free environments in the places where young people go, including parks, beaches, playgrounds, ball fields, and of course, schools.

We know that adolescence can be a time of experimentation and risk taking, but research supports the theory of the powerful influence of social norms that people generally conform to the unspoken cues and expectations in the environments around them. So it makes sense to enact, and enforce, comprehensive no-tobacco policies at schools and universities. Smoking is prohibited in public buildings statewide, but comprehensive school tobacco prevention policies go much further. They prohibit all tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and new-generation tobacco products the so-called “e-cigarettes” – on campus and even at off-campus school events

Many K-12 schools across the Western U.P. have been strengthening their tobacco policies in the past year. Western U.P. Health Department health educator Arnie Kinnunen helps school districts develop comprehensive policies that reinforce the social norm that tobacco use has no place on school campuses, even after hours and on weekends.

Returning college students will notice this week that two local universities have also gone tobacco-free. Both Michigan Tech University and Finlandia University begin the semesters sporting “tobacco-free campus’ signs.

I talked to Michigan Tech Health and Wellness Coordinator Whitney Boroski about the new policy. She told me Michigan Tech values community health, and believes a tobacco-free campus will help students, faculty and staff live healthier lives.

Boroski directed me to Michigan Tech’s new website,, where I found information about the policy change, smoking cessation programs, quit tips and links to resources. Boroski said the university has sponsored cessation groups (facilitated by the health department’s Arnie Kinnunen), and provides students and employees with information about health insurance benefits that cover nicotine reduction therapies. University counseling services can also help students who are trying to kick the habit.

About 23 percent of the region’s adults are current smokers, somewhat higher than state and national rates, according to a survey conducted in 2012 by the health department, and about one-quarter of high school juniors say they smoked at least once in the last 30 days. Tobacco-free schools and universities send a strong public health message that youth and tobacco should be mutually exclusive. As this becomes the social norm, we envision a future when local tobacco use will decline further.

Editor’s Note: Ray Sharp is the manager of community planning and preparedness at Western U.P. Health Department