Drexel Creates Smoke-Free Spaces on University City Campus

A map of smoke-free areas on Drexel's University City Campus.
A map of smoke-free areas on Drexel's University City Campus.

Drexel University has created several smoke-free areas on its University City Campus in an effort to encourage healthier practices by its community and neighbors and improve the environment on the urban campus.

Starting next week, signs have been placed around campus to prohibit smoking in Perelman Plaza, Korman Quad, Drexel Park, the Rush Building Alumni Garden, the URBN Annex Art Garden, the Race Street Quad, the Buckley Tennis Courts, the Buckley Recreational Field and Buckley Green. Per a city ordinance, smoking less than 20 feet from any building entrance or air intake is already prohibited on campus and throughout Philadelphia.

To enforce these smoke-free areas, officers from Drexel’s Department of Public Safety will pass out cards to smokers they see lighting up in these areas informing them of the policy. These cards will also contain information about services to help them quit smoking.

The implementation of these smoke-free areas stems from a senior project created by Zach Hughes, who graduated in 2016 with an MPH from the Dornsife School of Public Health and in 2017 with an MD from the College of Medicine. Hughes first began working on his project, which looked into the idea of a smoke-free Drexel, in the fall of 2015 with his adviser, Marla Gold, MD, dean emerita in the School of Public Health. The inspiration came from a lifetime of watching family members battle addiction to tobacco products, as well as new experiences helping patients struggling with tobacco use through his medical training at the College of Medicine.

“At Drexel, we are encouraged to dream of a more just, sustainable and healthier community, city, country and world. Smoking and tobacco threatens all three of these ideals,” Hughes explained. “So when it came time to pick my master’s project, this felt like a natural fit.”

For his project, Hughes researched tobacco use, the tobacco industry and the history of tobacco regulation to provide context to the problem of smoking on campuses across the country. He also identified colleges and universities similar to Drexel that had already enacted smoke-free or tobacco-free policies, including those that had joined the national Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative since 2012. Additionally, Hughes interviewed faculty or staff at local institutions of higher education, including the University of Pennsylvania and University of the Sciences, about the response and results of such programming at those universities.

A cigarette butt stuck in a paver on Drexel's University City Campus.

After that, Hughes began looking at the feasibility of bringing smoke-free policies to the University. Already, Drexel’s Human Resources HR-15 policy prohibited the sale of all tobacco products on campus as well as any smoking within 20 feet of any entrance or window of a building. Additionally, the University already prohibited the smoking or carrying of lighted tobacco products in all indoor facilities, outdoor athletic or recreation facilities and University-sponsored events, including those taking place at facilities not owned or operated by Drexel.

However, there was still room for improvement on campus. Drexel’s position and placement as an urban campus, specifically one next to a major transportation hub like 30th Street Station, brought in a lot of foot traffic from smokers. Plus, the smokers who congregated socially did so near pocket areas of green space (like those now designated smoke-free areas) — and disposed of their cigarette butts there. This created environmental issues with maintaining those spaces. Perelman Plaza, for example, was specifically built to include a sustainable rainwater management system that would recycle water runoff, but that was being contaminated by cigarette butts lodged between the concrete pavers.

“We wanted communal spaces to be healthy and as clean and clear as possible to help the air and lungs of the campus and its community,” said Gold.

Armed with that information, they met with various Drexel faculty and staff members, including those from University Facilities and Real Estate; University Communications; the Office of Student Life, the Office of Counseling and Health Services; the Department of Public Safety; the Office of the Executive Vice President, Treasurer and COO; and the Office of the President. Gold, a longtime member of the Philadelphia Board of Health, also brought in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to consult on the project and help with the training of Drexel’s public safety officers that will be responsible for monitoring and handing out the smoke-free reminder cards.

Drexel’s move to including smoke-free areas on campus has won the support of city government. Ryan Coffman, Tobacco Policy and Control Program manager for the Philadelphia Department of Health, said, “I applaud Drexel University’s commitment to providing a healthy, clean and safe environment for their staff and students. We look forward to supporting the expansion of smoke-free zones on campus as Drexel joins the burgeoning local and national movement towards tobacco-free colleges and universities.”

The front of the card that Drexel Public Safety officers will give to smokers within the smoke-free areas on Drexel's University City Campus.

After writing his senior project, Hughes began working with Gold to turn it into a proposal that could be distributed to the administration and presented to the Faculty Senate (both of which approved plans to create smoke-free areas).

“The task for all public health students with their senior project is to have a deliverable that can benefit an organization,” said Gold. “This is the first time in recent memory that a project that spanned this long of a time and had this deep of a meaning was applied to an institution at Drexel.”

After Hughes graduated and started his medical residency in internal medicine at The Ohio State University/Wexner Medical Center, Gold presented the proposal to the President’s Executive Council and worked with various committees and departments to begin the process of making the proposal a reality. Now, more than two years after Hughes came up with his senior project idea, it’s finally happened.

“I learned so much while working on this project,” said Hughes, who received an opportunity to work with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and an internship at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through this work. “I now know more about tobacco use and the tobacco industry, which I utilize almost every day when working with patients. Equally important, I learned a great deal about teamwork and the amount of effort and thought that goes into developing every policy or law.”

“For us, this is public health in action,” said Gold.“This is what it's like to be at a university that's committed to becoming the most civically engaged university in the United States.”