By Adrian Teran-Tapia
Virginia Commonwealth University plans to implement a systemwide ban on cigarettes and other nicotine products — but the school will continue its partnership with Altria, one of the world’s biggest tobacco producers.
On Friday, VCU officials finished taking public comments on the proposal to prohibit smoking, vaping and any other use of tobacco products on property or vehicles owned by the university. Under the plan, VCU would allow smoking only in designated outdoor areas.
The proposal now goes to the University Council and then to the VCU President’s Cabinet for review. If approved, it would take effect July 1.
Although a ban on tobacco products has been in place at VCU Medical Center since 2010, outdoor smoking has been allowed on the Monroe Park Campus, where most of the school’s 31,000 students attend classes.
The proposal to prohibit nicotine products on all VCU property has been in the works since last fall, said university spokesperson Carolyn Conlon.
“As health providers, the proposed policy is written to align with our values and is about creating an environment that is free of all known health hazards,” Conlon said.
Under the policy, VCU would provide education and smoking cessation programs for students, faculty andstaff.
Altria, headquartered in Henrico County, has a net worth of more than $100 billion, according to the company’s annual report. It is the parent company of Philip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. and John Middleton Inc., which makes cigars and pipe tobacco. Altria also owns 35 percent of the e-cigarette maker Juul.
For years, the tobacco giant has been the biggest corporate entity in Richmond and the biggest corporate donor to VCU. According to VCU donor relations spokesperson Samantha Marrs, VCU has accepted over $2.5 million in donations from Altria since 2016. The contributions include:
- $600,000 (in 2017) and $375,000 (in 2016) toward scholarships for first-generation college students. The gift also provides academic assistance for students enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and business disciplines.
- $1 million toward a facility to “enhance student creativity and maker culture” at the VCU School of Engineering.
- $360,000 toward graduate assistantships in chemistry (2016).
- $150,000 toward the Richmond Teacher Residency program (2016), which helps train teachers to make an immediate impact in the city’s public schools.
VCU will continue its relationship with Altria, which has been “very beneficial to a number of areas in the university,” Marrs said. Not only has Altria made substantial financial contributions to the university, but the conglomerate is also one of the top recruiters at VCU, employing hundreds of alumni, according to Marrs.
Marrs does not believe the policy banning smoking at VCU will have any effect on the partnership between the corporation and university. She said Altria will continue to provide scholarships and other support for VCU students.
“I think Altria is absolutely committed to being a socially responsible corporate partner in Richmond,” Marrs said. “And they’re a very valuable partner to the School of Education, Engineering, Business and Department of Chemistry. They’ve made things happen by funding students to finish college.”
In explaining the policy, VCU officials pointed to the health risks of tobacco use and the dangers of secondhand smoke.
“In addition, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world and cost the university money to clean up,”they said. “Smoke and tobacco-free campus policies also significantly reduce campus fires.”
The ban would not apply to government-approved smoking cessation products such as nicotine patches or nicotine gum.
The American Cancer Society and CVS Health Foundation awarded VCU $20,000 in grants last month to promote tobacco-free campus initiatives.
VCU also will host the Virginia Tobacco-Free Higher Education Summit on April 23. The daylong meeting, sponsored by the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the University of Virginia Cancer Center, “seeks to bring together university champions to end tobacco use among college and university students, staff and faculty in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”