FAIRBANKS — University of Alaska leaders are drafting a policy that could ban tobacco use at its statewide campuses as soon as next year.

The momentum for a smoke-free university system in Alaska has steadily been building, thanks to student pressure and a larger shift away from public tobacco use. But the most decisive push came last month, when several members of the Board of Regents requested a policy to consider at their December meeting.

UA President Pat Gamble said he’s directed chancellors at the Fairbanks, Anchorage and Southeast campuses to present him with a recommendation for a tobacco-free plan this month. If Gamble finds the proposal workable, he’ll present it to regents for consideration.

Students have routinely testified in favor of a tobacco-free system at regents meetings during the past few years, with student leaders at the University of Alaska Anchorage most vocal about the issue. Gamble said he considers the shift inevitable, and the request by regents could be the final step toward implementing

a policy.

“I think it’s very close,” he said.

Aside from a push by some students to curb public tobacco use, there are growing fiscal considerations as the UA budget tightens, Gamble said. He cited a recent study that put the health and productivity costs of an employee who smokes at more than $5,000.

“The students definitely took the lead, but now there’s coming to be a business case to be made in this,” Gamble said.

It’s still uncertain how a tobacco ban may be implemented or what it would include. Those drafting the policy will need to decide whether it encompasses the use of cigarettes, chewing tobacco and even e-cigarettes. Smoking is already prohibited indoors at UA facilities, but the ban would potentially expand to any part of campus with the new policy.

Gamble said it won’t address the use of marijuana, which Alaska voters could legalize next month.

Gamble said he’s giving the chancellors the opportunity to consider the needs of their own campuses but said he’d prefer a uniform policy that could be implemented statewide. 

The idea for a tobacco-free campus has been floated for several years among employees at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but a divided response didn’t offer much direction. Chancellor Brian Rogers said a survey conducted last year came back with 387 people in favor of a tobacco ban, 387 opposed.

Tobacco use has been a controversial topic in the university system for several years. UA announced in 2011 it would begin issuing a health insurance surcharge for tobacco users, but it abandoned that plan after an outcry from employees. Gamble said efforts to reduce off-campus smoking won’t be part of the new proposal.

But Rogers said the public push toward tobacco-free zones is expanding. Alaska’s hospitals have all banned smoking, and he said organizations such as Tanana Chiefs Conference are joining a growing list of no-smoking zones.

“We’re seeing lots of institutions headed that way, and that’s the way this is going,” Rogers said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness.