Is Trinity better when it’s tobacco-free?

The Tobacco Free Trinity Campaign has found some success, but still has a long way to go

Less than one in five Irish adults now identify as smokers. Will the sight of a lit cigarette be alien to our grandchildren’s generation? Speaking to Trinity News, Health Promotion officer Martina Mullen says that: “smoking is the really big one, when you compare it to fast food or alcohol, nothing comes close. In Ireland, 100 people a week die from smoking.” The Tobacco Free Campus Initiative began on the west coast of the United States, and now counts over 2,000 US third-level institutions as 100% ‘tobacco free’. Trinity was the first Irish university to start a Tobacco Free Campus program in 2013. A majority of undergraduates opposed the ban in its earliest years, while a strong majority of staff and postgrads supported the proposal. In 2014, the Student Union ran a referendum on the question ‘Should Trinity be tobacco free?’. Students voted ‘No’ by a margin of 53% to 47%. 

In 2016 Trinity introduced three Tobacco Free Zones where students were obliged to not smoke; Fellow’s Square, the Health Centre, and the Sports Centre. The College witnessed an 83% drop in smoking rates in these zones throughout this trial period. Within these zones, students who were smoking were asked by Tobacco Free Trinity ambassadors to put out their cigarette or leave the area. As the year went on, people were also more likely to refuse to leave. There was no “complete compliance” – leaving a zone when asked by a smoke-free ambassador in any month of the trial. Mullen notes that smoking levels are low in Trinity; at 8% they are less than half that of the national student demographic. Mullen adds that the phenomenon of ‘social smoking’, having an irregular cigarette with an alcoholic drink, may mean that this figure greatly understates the problem.

In September 2018 a second SU referendum was held for the expansion of the existing tobacco free zones to the entire campus with the exception of the Kinsella Hall plinth, the area along the cricket pitch, and outside the launderette near the Dining Hall. In a dramatic reverse of the 2014 results, students voted 70% to 30% to back the proposal, albeit with a turnout of 1,447. Mullen says that there was a noticeable “pushback” in the initial period after the introduction of the ban, and for a brief period smoking levels actually increased. The policy is complied to by 75% of students, but Mullen says there are a cohort who “don’t get it, and will continue to smoke in Tobacco Free areas, they’ll always return.” “The policy will mean that students can walk in and out of buildings without breathing in smoke. Smoking is ridiculous, it’s so bad for us and this is about changing attitudes towards it.”

In order to implement the ban on smoking outside of the prescribed areas, students were employed as ambassadors for Tobacco Free Trinity, and were charged with monitoring adherence, and reminding students of the ban. €36,000 was spent on the initiative, including €10,000 for new signage highlighting the new rules. Fines are not issued for breaking the ban, as the initiative is intended to be about changing attitudes towards smoking among the Trinity community. Mullen says the policy makes students “conscious” of their smoking habits, that “many students started smoking when they were in college and didn’t realise that they were addicted until they were 40.”

In January 2020, Mullen sought feedback at the SU Council meeting for the proposal of turning Trinity Halls into a smoke-free zone. Trinity News reported at the time that there was little feedback from students on this proposal at the time, though one student noted that enforcement would be nearly impossible at the residences. 

We’re all adults here, why do the Student Union and College feel like they can dictate our lives.”

While the initiative has been hailed as a success by many, in particular due to the decline of 83% in smoking recorded during the pilot phase, the initiative has been controversial for some students. Speaking to Trinity News, one Trinity student and smoker said: “It’s ridiculous, I don’t know why College feels like they need to stand in for the role of parents. We’re all adults here, why do the Student Union and College feel like they can dictate our lives. No-one even follows the ban.” Many other students note the lack of adherence to the tobacco free zones, and the absence of ashtrays for cigarette butts. According to one student: “I wouldn’t mind the smoking ban, but I don’t understand why there are practically no ashtrays or places to put cigarette butts around college. People seem to think it’s acceptable to drop them on the ground, which is bad, but they need containers for cigarette butts outside the Arts Block.”

“To be honest most smokers don’t follow it but it definitely makes smoking less acceptable.”

One student speaking to Trinity News spoke in favour of the Tobacco Free policy: “I think it’s a good idea, to be honest most smokers don’t follow it but it definitely makes smoking less acceptable and would make someone slower to light up if they were sitting beside you outside.”