The University of Michigan has entered its fourth year as a smoke-free campus and, for the most part, faculty, staff, students and visitors who light up seem aware of the policy and have honored it.

more information

For those who haven’t heard or may be confused about where smoking is allowed, members of a new Smoke-free Ambassador program offer help.

Since June, student volunteers and some enrolled in a School of Public Health class have been walking around campus reminding smokers of the policy that took effect in July 2011. The ambassadors wear baseball caps and badges to identify themselves, carry materials that explain the policy and offer free quit assistance, and approach smokers with a warm greeting and gentle reminder.

“We don’t want a confrontation, we want to start a conversation,” says Joe Calabrisotto, a student leader who got involved through the LSA student government health committee.

What’s great about the new program that was conceived by Chief Health Officer Dr. Robert Winfield, who also directs the University Health Service, is that students are the ones who have taken the ball and run with it, said Marsha Benz, health educator at UHS.

Calabrisotto and a handful of volunteers were the first to be trained by Benz and Joe Zichi, program manager in the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, on how to approach smokers in a non-confrontational manner, and to explain the policy.

They later were joined by students from an SPH tobacco policy class taught by Cliff Douglas, lecturer in the school, director of the U-M Tobacco Research Network and director of the national Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative, a partnership of U-M,  the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the American College Health Association.

For course credit, half of the students were assigned to work on the ambassador program and the other half conducted research on campus attitudes about the scope of the current policy.

“Our job is to act as educators,” said SPH student Julia Schroeder. “We definitely tried to approach the smokers in a way that was friendly. We are not there to judge or to tell them not to smoke.”

The SPH students said few people they approached were rude.

“I talked to mostly students and the reactions were, ‘OK, I understand.’ Very chill,” says Victoria Facchini.

She said she found most people were aware of the policy but sometimes were uncertain about the areas in which smoking is allowed. U-M’s policy allows smoking along most sidewalks that border streets but only next to those roads considered public thoroughfares.  

The students focused largely on hot spots on campus where smoking continues to be a problem. They say their first encounters were a little intimidating.

“It’s a step out of your comfort zone,” says Nalingna Yuan. “Once we got more familiar we also got more skilled.”

Today it’s a dozen or so trained student ambassadors. Benz says the hope is that one day such a group won’t even be needed.

“The goal would be to become the norm that it’s okay for any of us to go up to smokers and explain the policy, making everyone on campus an ambassador,” she says.

In the meantime, Calabrisotto said students come and go from the university, and new ambassadors are needed to take their places. He’ll be talking with several student organizations in the near future to do some recruitment.

“We’re looking for energetic, friendly faces who are passionate about being healthy,” he said.