CUNY will become the largest smoke-free public university system in the United States once a broad new policy, approved by the Board of Trustees at the start of the spring semester, goes into full effect over the next year and a half. 

The new policy expands the University’s current ban on smoking inside all facilities and vehicles to include all outdoor grounds. And it bars all tobacco-industry promotions and marketing, including sponsorship of athletic events and athletes. The board’s resolution requires the 23 CUNY campuses to implement the new policy by September 2012, giving them time to develop educational campaigns, post signs and add counselors trained in helping smokers quit.

“The harmful effects of tobacco use are well known,” board Chairperson Benno Schmidt and Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said in a joint statement. “Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the world today — and in New York City — and this action will further reduce exposure to tobacco and improve public health. As the nation’s largest urban public university, as a source of thousands of health-profession graduates and as the home of the new CUNY School of Public Health, CUNY has an opportunity — and a responsibility — to set appropriate standards as an example for universities seeking to protect the health of their students and employees.”

The move is part of a national trend on college campuses that has gained momentum in the past year. The University at Buffalo banned smoking on its three campuses last summer and Columbia University recently prohibited smoking within 20 feet of buildings — two of the 466 campuses that have banned smoking, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.

But the breadth of the CUNY policy and its reach across a public university system of nearly half a million students and more than 20,000 faculty and staff makes it the boldest move yet — one that has brought national media attention and praise from public health advocates. The action was reported by major news outlets throughout New York City and well beyond, from The Huffington Post to The Jerusalem Post, as well as in the higher education media.

“I heartily congratulate the board at CUNY for taking this groundbreaking step to protect the health of its students, faculty and staff,” said New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “I urge members of the CUNY community who smoke to use this as an opportunity to quit, as it is the single most important step you can take to improve your health. The Health Department looks forward to supporting CUNY as it implements this pioneering policy. Because of the board’s actions, the CUNY community will be a healthier place to work and learn.”

Smoking-related deaths from cancer, heart and lung diseases and other conditions account for more than 440,000 premature deaths each year, about one in five deaths in the United States. The U.S. Surgeon General also has determined that exposure to secondhand smoke — even outdoors — is dangerous to health, and that reducing exposure will save lives and cut health care expenditures.

The University estimates that 13 percent of its students, faculty and staff are smokers. According to Alexandra W. Logue, executive vice chancellor and University provost, the University’s recent creation of a School of Public Health helped prompt support for an expanded anti-smoking policy that included barring any marketing presence by the tobacco industry on campuses.

At Goldstein’s request, Logue led a University Advisory Committee on Tobacco Policy, which researched and developed the recommendations that helped form the new policy. The committee, which included faculty, staff and students, conducted an extensive outreach program that included a special website to receive input from the University community.

“Part of our job is to promote the basic values of 21st-century higher education in the United States,” said Logue. “These values include cultivating respect for others, emphasizing the importance of health and wellness, supporting environmental sustainability and preparing students for professional success in workplaces that are, increasingly, tobacco-free.”

Under the leadership of Luis Manzo, the University’s director for mental health and wellness services, CUNY will support the new policy by providing training, information and other resources across the university system. By this June, each college, as well as the University central office, will be required to submit implementation plans that address its specific needs. After review and approval, the colleges will have until Sept. 4, 2012, to fully implement the new policies.

The new smoke-free philosophy is aligned with New York City’s under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose strong anti-tobacco push has made the city a national leader in government actions to reduce smoking. Through education, taxation, support of cessation programs and expanding tobacco-free spaces, the city has helped cut smoking rates below national levels. New York City public schools and medical facilities are already tobacco-free, both inside and outside buildings.

Still, smoking is permitted on city sidewalks and that may minimize the impact  on urban-style campuses such as Hunter College, Baruch College and LaGuardia Community College more than on more traditional-style campuses such as Queens College, the College of Staten Island and Kingsborough Community College, which have space between their buildings — and, in some cases, on top of them.

At John Jay College of Criminal Justice, smoking will be banned on the new rooftop commons of a block-long building that will be part of the college’s expansion next fall. “Before this ban, we would have had to permit smoking,” Karen Kaplowitz, a professor of literature and a former smoker who served on the advisory committee, told The New York Times. “But now we’re going to have a beautiful, tobacco-free campus in the middle of Manhattan that is unthreatened by cigarette smoke and butts.”