On most days at Grove City College, smoke hangs around the entrances to the buildings, including the dorms, the student center and the dining halls. Although the small Christian university in Grove City, Pa., has strict rules governing alcohol and drug use, it does not restrict smoking. Recent attempts by nonsmoking students to limit the places smokers could light up on campus failed, bucking the trend set by other Christian schools.
A majority of Christian and secular colleges already ban or restrict the use of tobacco on their properties. In the most recent effort to cut down on smoking, Ohio higher education officials plan to vote next month on whether or not to join the fight against tobacco use on their public campuses.
Bans on the sale, advertising, and use of tobacco are being adopted or considered at almost half of college campuses nationwide, sometimes over the objections of student, staff, and faculty smokers. Opponents say that a complete ban would infringe on their rights and that nonsmokers can avoid secondhand smoke by avoiding smoking areas. But advocates of the bans hope to limit the health problems caused by secondhand smoke, cut down on property damage and stop life-forming habits before they start.
"They are also questioning what the role of tobacco is in this academic setting, where we're supposed to be standing for truth and training the next generation of leaders," said Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a group advocating for smoking bans on campus.
According to the surgeon general's report for 2012, tobacco use among people ages 18 to 25 remains at epidemic proportions nationwide. The report found 90 percent of smokers started by age 18 and 99 percent by age 26. Studies show that about a quarter to one-third of college students smoke.
Noah Walker, a junior finance major and resident assistant, headed efforts to adopt smoking restrictions at Grove City. Proponents explored several options to limit exposure to secondhand smoke, primarily banning smoking next to the dormitories, Walker said.
"It's surprising for our demographic how many people smoke," Walker said, "Smoking is frequent and prominent on campus, especially around the male dorms."
Messiah College, in Grantham, Pa., Covenant College, in Lookout Mountain, Ga., and many other Christian colleges already have initiatives to make their campuses smoke free. Grove City is one of the few Christian schools that still allows students, faculty and staff to smoke outside wherever they want to. The student handbook requests that smokers stay away from doorways and open windows but does not require them to stay away from dorms.
While the Student Government Association didn't take up the ban last year, Walker said he was hopeful that the school would still take initiatives to stop smokers from congregating so close to the dormitories, including stronger wording in the student handbook and better enforcement from campus safety around dormitory areas.
"Why are we so accommodating to something so harmful?" he said "They're hurting themselves and others."
Other students disagreed with Walker's proposal, and opposed any efforts to restrict smoking. They said that many students on the campus smoke, and that they faced little judgment or concern from their peers.
Smokers at Grove City and other smoke-friendly campuses say smoking helps to provide stress relief, as well as enjoyment. They say that completely banning tobacco use would only cause more stress. Ida Seitter, a political science major at Ohio State University says she lights up frequently to help her through exam season.
"Just back away from me a little bit," Seitter said of people who might be bothered by her smoking. " I think it's a little discriminatory for a practice that is considered legal."
Opponents of any smoking ban say restrictions are just a method used to frustrate smokers into quitting. If they offend people with secondhand smoke, they can merely walk away or move out of range, smokers say. Except in certain circumstances, like parks or areas near small children, smoking should be permitted anywhere, they say.
Smoking rights advocate Audrey Silk, founder of New York Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, says any outdoor ban - whether for a campus, beach or public park - is an attack on the rights of one segment of the population.
"This isn't a health issue anymore. It's a moral issue," she said. "There's absolutely zero reason for a smoking ban outdoors."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.