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updated: 9/24/2011 8:12 AM

McHenry County College goes tobacco-free Oct. 1

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You could say that McHenry County College is blazing a trail among suburban community colleges without benefit of lighting a match.

Smoking cigarettes or using any tobacco products such as dip or snuff will be forbidden at the Crystal Lake school beginning Oct 1.

Violators of the new policy could be subject to a $50 fine for the first citation, $100 for the second, and up to $250 thereafter, officials said.

In the suburban Chicago area, Wheaton College is also tobacco-free (always has been), while Aurora University and Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove prohibit smoking on campus but allow other uses of tobacco.

According to surveys conducted in February at MCC, 73 percent of employees and 67 percent of students were in favor of the tobacco ban, which the college board has approved, officials said.

Lena Kalemba, MCC's director of health and wellness, said the college has been handing out stress balls, mints and literature on smoking cessation and offering classes and programs on how to quit the habit, including using methods such as acupuncture and hypnosis.

"I think it's hard when you're young to realize the health effects of something that may take effect down the road," Kalemba said. "(Young smokers) think they will be young and healthy and have lots of energy forever, but with nicotine and other chemicals in tobacco products, some of the health effects you don't see for 20 or 30 years."

Although the MCC board passed the policy just recently, the push toward becoming tobacco-free began long before that, Kalemba said.

In February 2010, the number of designated smoking areas on campus was restricted to three, and a first tobacco-free target date of July 2010 was pushed back to allow for more educational outreach, she said.

MCC has joined a growing list of colleges and universities across the nation, said Thomas Carr, director of national policy for the American Lung Association. There were 251 tobacco-free campuses as of last month, Carr said. "It's been growing at exponential rates since the beginning of the 2000s. (The list) was single-digits back in 2006."

A total of 530 postsecondary schools, from trade schools to four-year universities, had smoke-free campuses as of July 1, said Cynthia Hallett, executive director for Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. That's out of more than 6,600 postsecondary schools in the country, according to 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Community colleges are passing these very strong policies first, and four-year universities are coming a little bit later," Hallett said. "The smaller the campus, the greater ability to move quickly."

Going tobacco- or smoke-free can cause friction if students and staff aren't given enough information ahead of time to adjust to the changes, Hallett said.

"Sometimes people go off campus and across the street, and smoke in front of other businesses and residents. Then (colleges) just learn how to place receptacles for cigarette butts, and not create a new problem," she said.