Proposed tobacco ban stirs controversy on campus

 Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

BY ANNA KANE ’20

When Maddie Desfosses ’21 and Lili Paxton ’21 arrived on campus in the fall, they were immediately struck by how prevalent smoking and tobacco-use are on campus. They felt that the campus policy of maintaining a distance of 20 feet from buildings while smoking was ignored and inadequate.

“It feels like the current policy is targeted towards keeping smokers away from buildings and entrances more so than pathways,” said Desfosses, “and that’s where people are walking through cigarette smoke most of the time. We feel the current policy doesn’t really address that.”

Desfosses and Paxton decided to speak up during the questions and concerns segment at a Student Government Association Senate meeting last semester and took to Facebook to ask fellow students to sign a petition and consider joining them at Senate.

“We didn’t really have a policy in mind at that point, we knew that we just wanted to see student support through signatures,” said Paxton.

Tobacco bans have become popular across college campuses in recent years. According to the American Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, 1,771 campuses in the United States are 100 percent tobacco-free and 2,106 institutions are smoke-free as of January. This is a dramatic increase from the 586 smoke-free policies implemented on college campuses since 2011. According to the Truth Initiative, 78 percent of college students support policies that prohibit smoking and tobacco on college campuses.

Homeroom, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education, claims that the years after high school are what make or break a daily smoker, making college campus policies critical in tobacco prevention and cessation. Tobacco-free campus initiatives aim to deter students from starting to smoke or to continue smoking.  

According to the American College Health Association, three-quarters of college smokers are not daily smokers  — most identifying as “social smokers,” especially women. This makes it difficult to encourage light, social smokers to quit, despite the fact that they are susceptible to the same issues that affect heavy smokers, such as depression, psychological distress and dependence on other controlled substances.

Many colleges and universities want to de-normalize smoking in an effort to change the culture surrounding it. Michael Vuolo, a researcher at Ohio State University, found in a 2016 study that smoking bans in cities often encourage young, casual smokers to give up the habit or never develop it at all. However, the bans had almost no effect on young, frequent smokers.

Within the Five Colleges, UMass Amherst is the only institution that has a tobacco-free campus policy. The policy is enforced by reminding people about the negative health effects of tobacco, asking people to abstain from using tobacco products while on campus and offering resources for abstinence and cessation. Similar to Mount Holyoke, the current smoking policies at Amherst, Smith and Hampshire prohibit smoking in campus buildings and require smokers to stand at least 20 to 25 feet from building and entrances. Mount Holyoke also asks students to be mindful of cigarette disposal on campus and provides receptacles outside of dorms.

“It is extremely difficult to walk to class. About every other day someone is leaving a trail of smoke behind them,” said Emily Castner ’18. “I would be happier and healthier if people would just stand in one place while smoking, so I could have a short asthma attack, and not a prolonged one from constant secondhand smoke.”

Smoking at Mount Holyoke is nothing new. In fact, in the 1920s, President Mary E. Woolley was known for disapproving of women smoking. However, to prevent frequent garbage can fires, each dorm was provided with a smoking room.

Historically, the tobacco industry has focused on targeting racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households, people with mental health issues and women. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are also 5 percent more likely to smoke than heterosexual people, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The issue of marginalization has become a point of controversy in the College’s current debate.

Emet Marwell ’18 finds the proposed ban to be insensitive to the needs of students, and he was very vocal in sharing his views at the senate meeting where Desfosses and Paxton spoke in the fall. According to Marwell, for people of marginalized backgrounds, such as queer people, people of color and low-income people, smoking and tobacco-use is a coping mechanism for the hardships associated with their marginalization. “I find it really inconsiderate to have a ban that is unintentionally targeting people of those backgrounds,” he said.

For Paxton and Desfosses, protecting marginalized students is part of the mission. “Mount Holyoke has such a diverse student body that if you come here you might be a woman, you might be a member of the LGBTQIA community, you might be a person of color. You’re most likely going to experience some form of oppression, discrimination, [or] marginalization in society and we just don’t think that people should have to experience further oppression from tobacco and the tobacco industry,” said Desfosses. 

“When we posted on Facebook, people commented that they thought we were discriminating against people on campus and we don’t intend to do that. But no one mentioned the fact that the tobacco industry targets people of color, low income, mental health, women,” added Paxton.

Late in the fall semester, Paxton and Desfosses took their 50 collected signatures to Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall. After the two wrote up a page-long document explaining their position and reasoning, Dean Hall presented the information to the Division of Student Life. The next steps, to be initiated this semester, include the creation of a presidential task force that will be composed of students, faculty and staff. They will evaluate policy options for tobacco-use present these options to students by the end of the semester. The task force will focus on tobacco and does not plan to address issues relating to marijuana or vaping.

“It’s just trying to figure out the pros and cons and the individual approach that should be taken specifically for Mount Holyoke,” Desfosses said.

Arden Hegberg ’20 fears for the livelihood of students who smoke with the adoption of a new campus policy. “Smoking cigarettes can significantly help with mental health difficulties and especially issues of self-harm. I have heard stories from multiple students how smoking cigarettes allowed them to decrease, if not stop self-harming tendencies including, but not limited to, cutting and burning themselves,” they said. “It might not be an ideal solution, but for these students it is a much less dangerous alternative that we absolutely cannot be trying to take away from them.”

Both Paxton and Desfosses assert that their campaign is about the health of students, which should be a primary concern of the College. “We just think that telling students that smoking is a way you should deal with stress is really unproductive. We also want the health center to become more of a resource for students who are dealing with stress for a multitude of reasons,” said Paxton. “Smoking shouldn’t be a student’s first response to coping with stress.”

If school policy changes, Marwell would like to see designated smoking areas that are accessible and sheltered from the weather. Both Hegberg and Marwell call for the creation of a better system of resources and support on campus for students to quit smoking.

“In a perfect world we would just want a 100 percent tobacco-free campus, but we realize that’s not completely realistic,” said Paxton. “We just want to make a policy that is best for all students on this campus.” 

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