Why Toby Cosgrove’s dream of smoke-free Ohio colleges won’t happen anytime soon

Toby Cosgrove

I used to get stuck behind the same smoker every morning when I got off the blue line to walk to work down Chicago’s Lake Avenue.

As I choked down smoke along with often-frigid air, I’d curse his nicotine addiction, not to mention my own bad luck for seemingly always getting stuck walking behind the same guy.

Anyone who’s ever shared those feelings can appreciate Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove‘s crusade to get smoking outlawed on public college campuses in Ohio.


In the near term, though, Cosgrove’s efforts are largely doomed to failure — though not through any fault of his own.

The reason? Few colleges will do it, unless they all do it.

Vinny Gupta, a member of the Ohio Board of Regents, got it right when he relayed his experiences in speaking with seven college presidents about making their campuses smoke-free.

“They said, ‘Vinny, if I had to do it I would lose enrollment to the next county,’ ” he told The Plain Dealer. “If the whole state of Ohio did, it would level the playing field.”

Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has gone tobacco-free on campus, but it’s more of an anomaly for now. Inevitably, all colleges will someday ban smoking on their campuses, simply because that’s the direction the antismoking arrow is pointing, but that could take a decade or two.

Give Cosgrove some credit for possibly speeding up the process, considering that speaking out on this controversial topic doesn’t provide any direct benefit to him or the Clinic.

From here it looks like there are two possibilities that could result in Ohio college campuses without cigarettes. First, the state Legislature could simply tell public colleges that they must ban on-campus smoking, but that’s unlikely.

The real responsibility here lay with the college presidents, and that brings us to possibility No. 2. The university presidents have to get together and decide amongst themselves that they’ll all go smoke-free, without exception, at the same time.

Similar to the smoking ban in public places that Ohio passed in 2006, if everyone’s playing by the same rules, no one feels that they’re at a competitive disadvantage.

So, Cosgrove can push Ohio colleges in that direction, but it’s likely going to require some shoving — and then lots of collaboration by university presidents. And that won’t be easy or quick.

Until then, it’s “Welcome to flavor country,” Ohio college students. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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