January 1 marked the fifth anniversary of U of T prohibiting smoking on its three campuses. The policy, which U of T put into effect in 2019, prohibits individuals from smoking any lighted tobacco or cannabis and from using vapes or e-cigarettes on U of T property. 

While smoking policies and practices have changed, some students continue to smoke on campus — calling into question the policy’s effectiveness. 

Student smoking behaviour

In 1995, U of T introduced a policy that prohibited smoking inside all University of Toronto buildings, except for in designated smoking areas such as residences and campus pubs. The 2019 smoke-free campus policy extended the ban on smoking to all U of T property. 

Third-year political science student Natalia Montano smokes on campus and believes it remains a fairly regular activity. “Usually later in the day, you can spot at least three to four people trying their best to finish their cigarettes in the freezing cold,” she wrote in a message to The Varsity

While the 2019 policy applies to all U of T property, with no exceptions for designated smoking zones, she wrote that many spots are used so commonly for smoking that they “seem specially designed for smokers.” Montano explained that one can find giant piles of cigarette butts on “stairwells, benches and behind buildings, just out of sight.”

Nicotine consumption has changed over the past few years. A 2022 survey conducted by the Government of Canada found that six per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older had reported vaping in the 30 days before they took the survey — up from five per cent in 2019, when the government first began conducting the survey.

This number is much higher among young people, with approximately 20 per cent of 20–24-year-olds reporting having vaped in the past month and 33 per cent of them reporting that reducing stress was their main reason for vaping — making them the group with the most reported vapers. 

“If it weren’t for the accessibility of vapes, I think we’d see a lot more students gathering outside to smoke,” said Montano.

Why do students smoke? 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tobacco kills more than eight million people each year, including an estimated 1.3 million people who are killed by secondhand smoke. Smoking is also the leading cause of lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Considering these effects, why do university students continue consuming nicotine? 

“It’s an obvious stress reliever and not too time consuming,” wrote Montano. “Once you finish one or two cigarettes you know your break is over and it’s time to get back to work.” 

A 2022 study by the Government of Canada found that the primary reason for youth vaping is stress reduction. The study also found that the prevalence of smoking or vaping is higher among youth who rated their mental health as fair or poor than among those who rated their mental health as excellent, very good, or good. Nicotine releases dopamine, which can cause feelings of pleasure and relaxation, which leads to the beginning of nicotine cravings. 

A 2022 pan-Canadian survey by the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry that measured stress levels among university students found that, on average, they were incredibly high. Stress is a leading cause of mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety. The post-secondary age range is also particularly at risk for this development due to their stage of brain development. 

In addition to the smoke-free policy, U of T offers support for staff and students who want to quit smoking. Student programs for smoking cessation are available through the Health and Wellness centres found at all three campuses. The U of T Health and Wellness centres also provide access to workshops that can assist students with managing stress through coping and mindfulness strategies. 

Has the smoking ban been effective? 

Then-Vice President of Human Resources and Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat told U of T News in 2018 that the policy aimed to create “healthier campuses.” The five-year anniversary of the smoke-free campus policy is a good chance to evaluate how well the policy has worked. 

When asked about the effectiveness of the policy, Montano wrote that she hadn’t “personally” been impacted by the smoking ban. She noted that staff don’t seem to walk past spots where people tend to smoke very often. “When they do, they don’t say anything,” she wrote.

According to a U of T website, when enforcing the policy, the university focuses on educating U of T community members about the dangers of smoking. Generally, the university says enforcement measures may vary depending on “the individual’s relationship with the university, the nature of the infraction, and the place in which it occurred.”

A 2020 article published by The Varsity a year after the policy came into effect insinuated that students had been “ignoring” the policy. The article noted that the size of the St. George campus and its integration within the heart of Toronto complicate the ability to police the area. 

The smoke-free policy page on the U of T website mentions that both UTM and UTSC have designated smoking areas, and individuals can smoke in areas of the St. George campus operated by the city, including many streets and sidewalks within the campus. “St. George does not have clearly defined borders, so the line between what counts as even smoking on campus is blurry,” Montano told The Varsity.

Michelle Amri, assistant professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University, is an expert in smoke-free policies. In an email to The Varsity, Amri explained that smoke-free policies can be effective in reducing smoking consumption rates. However, the most successful way to reduce smoking is through a mixture of policy tools.

A 2020 Canadian study that surveyed public health practitioners on the most effective methods to reduce tobacco use found that most viewed economic incentives and regulation — such as localized bans and taxation — as the most effective ways to reduce smoking rates. The WHO also recommends mixing various interventions to limit smoking. 

Amri explained that policies that target the perception of smoking as a normal activity, like smoking bans, can be highly effective. For instance, public health policymakers advocate for ‘denormalizing’ tobacco by framing it as an activity that is not mainstream or normal. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that denormalization is successful in reducing the prevalence of smoking, with social unacceptability specifically being connected to reducing cigarette smoking. 

“Smoking bans on campus are one strategy that can help denormalize tobacco products, but also prevent non-smokers from being exposed to secondhand smoke and contain cigarette butt litter,” wrote Amri.