Cyclones inspire public policy change

Christie Smith

For some, Iowa State’s catch phrase “find your adventure” is an invitation to leave your mark on the world.

Students with the university’s Health Promotion Club decided to start at the university level and work their way up. Their push for an e-cigarette ban has inspired a university policy, city and county resolutions and is now on its way to the state legislature.

The student group, led by adviser and kinesiology senior lecturer Denise Denton, first considered the possibility of an electric nicotine and delivery systems (e-cigarette) ban when the Story County Prevention Policy Board helped pass legislation to prevent selling e-cigarettes to minors.

Before the summer of 2014, there was no age restriction in Iowa for purchasing e-cigarettes, despite the fact that e-cigarettes can deliver nicotine at levels consistent with traditional cigarettes.

When the board suggested an e-cigarette ban in public places, the Board of Health denied it, saying it would like to see the ban at the city level first, Denton said.

“Well, what if [the ban] came from the students?” Nathan Davis, graduate student in food science and human nutrition and member of the Story County Prevention Policy Board, asked.

Denton began cold calling several of the larger metropolitan areas to see what policies they had in place. Denton said she discovered that each of the three largest cities in the United States — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles —already had e-cigarette bans in place.

When Denton introduced the idea to the students of the Health Promotion Club, the students saw an opportunity to make an impact on public policy.

“[We asked] what is a public health issue that we can tackle that’s do-able?” said Spencer Cain, senior in kinesiology and health and the Health Promotion Club’s president. “Everyone in the club was on board from the get-go.”

While the members of the club began to organize a survey to determine the community’s attitude toward e-cigarette usage, Davis began compiling research regarding the safety of e-cigarettes.

“We saw a lot of data emerging from people like the World Health Organization … saying [e-cigs are] probably not as great as people make them out to be,” Davis said. “And they’re definitely not cessation devices.”

Within one week, Cain and the other students in the club collected 599 surveys, Denton said.

The surveys consisted of six questions that were given verbally to participants at several locations on and near campus, Cain said. The students developed and administered the surveys themselves, including questions that asked about participants’ willingness to support businesses where e-cigarette usage was allowed.

“It was a really well-conducted survey because if you go back and look at the demographics, they fit the demographics of the university,” Davis said. “Ultimately, the statistics show that there was an overwhelmingly negative stigma toward [e-cigarettes].”

At the same time, in October 2014, Ames High School’s Mayor’s Youth Committee decided to conduct its own survey, Denton said. The committee collected 631 surveys from students and staff.

Armed with data from more than 1,200 local surveys, Davis called in a favor with a friend on Student Government and got on the agenda for a meeting in February of 2015.

Davis and several students from the Health Promotion Club attended the meeting to show support for a ban of e-cigarette usage on university property. Davis spoke to the Senate and presented the research he had done and the surveys collected by the club.

After a long debate among the senators, the Senate agreed to pass the resolution up to the Faculty Senate. Denton said she thought the driving force for the Senate’s support of the ban was the fact that so many members of the Health Promotion Club were in attendance.

“Decisions are made by people who show up,” Denton said.

While the students waited for the university to make a decision regarding the ban, Ames City Council directed city staff to draft options for a city policy after learning that Iowa City had voted on a first passage of a ban there in June. Story County decided to ban e-cigarette use on county property in July.

Things died down for the student group during summer break, while Denton kept in touch with public policymakers in other states and cities, monitoring national attitudes toward e-cigarette bans.

When the students arrived back on campus for the fall semester this year, Cain said the fight for the ban picked up steam again. The club attended several Ames City Council meetings and sent letters to its local and state representatives.

Iowa State Sen. Herman Quirmbach, former Ames City Council member, took an interest in the students’ initiative, Davis said.

In December 2015, the proposed ban on campus was expected to take place soon and city staff came back to City Council with four options for handling the use of e-cigarettes in public places in Ames.

City Attorney Judy Parks and Assistant City Attorney Jessica Spoden gave the council four options: it could adopt a policy similar to the one that had gone into effect in Iowa City over the summer, it could adopt a policy banning e-cigarettes in all of the same places as traditional cigarettes via the Smokefree Air Act, it could mirror the proposed ISU policy or itcould do nothing.

Several students, members of the Story County Prevention Board, Healthiest Ames Board and Health Promotion Club spoke in favor of the ban during a public forum, according to City Council minutes.

Cain presented correspondence he had with Quirmbach, saying the senator intended to push the e-cigarette ban at the state level.

By the end of the evening, the council voted 5-1 to direct the city attorney to draft a policy mirroring the Smokefree Air Act; effectively banning e-cigarette usage in all public places where traditional cigarettes are banned, with an exception for e-cigarette stores. The proposed policy would also allow the parks and recreation department to create policy specific to public parks.

In January 2016, the policy was introduced to City Council in its entirety; a resolution for the ban was passed unanimously for a first, and then a second time during two separate meetings of the council.

That same month, the university ban went into effect, and the Health Promotion Club set a date with the Iowa Legislature for March to lobby for the policy it had first decided to tackle just more than a year ago, Cain said.

Cain said he and the other students were relieved to see their work pay off in what was a relatively short amount of time.

“Public policy takes a long time, typically,” Cain said. But the work for the Health Promotion Club isn’t done.

“The end goal is to take it to the state,” Cain said. “We wanted to focus first on the university because it was an accessible body for us … foreseeably it was something we could really make change in.”

Denton, who has worked in public policy for more than 20 years, said it was a great learning experience for the students to see the process that public policies go through. She said she hoped by seeing the process from start to finish, students would be inspired by the impact they forged on their community.

Although many of the students involved in the proposed policy are studying and interning in fields such as kinesiology, where public policy will be all in a day’s work, Davis was motivated to get involved by something else.

Davis, whose graduate research focuses on the safety of microwave popcorn, said he joined the Story County Prevention Policy Board with a desire simply to serve the community.

“Students have a voice and they should care,” Davis said. “I think so many students discount themselves.”

Davis said students not only have the opportunity to be civically engaged during their time at Iowa State but believes they have an obligation to do so.

“I was motivated because it was my civic duty,” Davis said.

Cain and Davis agreed that the process of introducing the public policy not only made them feel good about helping the community but also helped them develop their soft skills — like public speaking, shaking hands and maintaining eye contact — and helped prepare them for future internships and job interviews.

A final passage of the e-cigarette ban is expected to take place at the Ames City Council meeting Feb. 9. The pair said there is no time like the present, especially while in college, to get involved in your community.

“You can start your own movement,” Davis said. “You can have a say in what your community does and in the quality of life that you experience.”

The Health Promotion Club is open to all students, faculty and staff. More information about the club can be found here.

The Story County Prevention Policy Board is open to all residents of Story County. It hosts monthly meetings at the Youth and Shelter Services in Ames. You can learn more about the board here.