Harvard Students Promote Smoke-Free Graduate Housing

Two Harvard graduate students have recently launched a campaign to ban smoking in all Harvard graduate student housing.

Medical School student Kristin T. L. Huang ’07 and her husband Yi-An Huang ’05, a Business School student, started the push to prohibit smoking in graduate student apartments since they were concerned about the effects of second-hand smoke on their seven-month-old child. Currently, 40 percent of graduate apartments are smoke-free.

While Huang and her husband say they first noticed smoke in their unit last summer, they only began actively protesting the University’s policy after a chance warning at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I was going into an interview at Mass. General Hospital,” Huang said. “While I was there, I came across a newsletter detailing the dangers of exposure to secondhand smoke.”

The newsletter included information demonstrating that children who live in apartment complexes have higher levels of cotinine—a chemical indicator of exposure to tobacco smoke—in their bodies than other children, even if there are no smokers in the units where they live.

After her visit to the hospital, Huang began her own research on the subject. “I presented to the Housing Office all the information I had gathered,” she said. “Despite the clear dangers, they maintained that they would not change their policy.”

She said the Harvard housing representative she spoke to suggested that if she continued to find the second-hand smoke to be a problem, she should move to another building.

“They told us they would cover the transfer fee but wouldn’t address our moving costs,” Huang said.

Huang and her husband considered moving to a new unit but decided against it.

“We have been considering the option, but we think it’s selfish to stop there,” she said. “After everything I’ve learned from my research, I feel it’s my responsibility to advocate for all the children who live on Harvard property.”

Harvard currently designates 40 percent of its graduate apartments as smoke-free. After July 1, the University plans to make 56 percent of these apartments smoke-free.

“We will continue to expand our smoke-free apartment program, building on a non-smoking policy we piloted in 2010,” University spokesperson Lauren M. Marshall wrote in an emailed statement. “We recognize that many residents prefer to live in a smoke-free property and [Harvard University Housing] has steadily increased the number of designated non-smoking apartments.”

But some medical experts said that Harvard is not doing enough. According to Jonathan P. Winickoff, a Harvard Medical School professor and pediatrician at Mass. General Hospital who contributed to the newsletter that caught Huang’s attention in the fall, Harvard should expedite the process of converting its units to smoke-free residences.

“Having smoke-free buildings is the only option,” Winickoff said. “Smokers can go outside if they need to smoke. But everyone has to breathe.”

He added, “There’s only one answer here, and we’re hoping the Harvard housing society will be on the right side of history.”

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