BY LIZ LEWIS ’22
An email sent out by the office of President Sonya Stephens sparked controversy last week as the community was informed that by June 2020, Mount Holyoke will be a 100 percent smoke-free campus.
According to Stephens’ message, “Last year, a group of faculty, students and staff came together as a task force to investigate the question of whether Mount Holyoke should adopt such a policy.” In the spring of 2018, this task force “delivered a thoughtful and balanced report to the senior leadership team,” which featured recommendations such as “a two-year time horizon to assess and review the actions needed to become a smoke or tobacco-free campus.”
By setting the June 2020 deadline, the officers on the receiving end of the task force’s report hope to strengthen the College’s larger Be Well initiative in “[engaging] the entire community in physical, social and emotional wellbeing.” According to Stephens, the College has also “received a $20,000 grant from the Truth Initiative, a leading national smoke-free advocacy organization.” When this new policy is implemented, Mount Holyoke will join the ranks of “many peer liberal arts institutions which have already become or are well on their way to becoming smoke or tobacco-free.”
In February 2018, two students, Madeline Desfosses ’21 and Lili Paxton ’21, raised the possibility of becoming a smoke-free campus at an SGA senate meeting. They felt that “the campus policy of maintaining a distance of 20 feet from buildings while smoking was ignored and inadequate.” Backed by a “page-long document explaining their position and reasoning” and a petition bearing 50 signatures, Paxton and Desfosses took their concerns to Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall, who shared the information with the Division of Student Life. Subsequent steps included the formation of a presidential task force and, eventually, the decision to move forward with a smoke-free policy.
Mount Holyoke is not the first college in the U.S. to implement a smoking ban. According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, 2,342 campuses nationwide have adopted 100 percent smoke-free policies, 1,975 of which also prohibit tobacco. The Truth Initiative, a leading organization in the prevention of youth smoking, claims that tobacco and smoke-free policies can reduce smoking rates among young adults, shift public attitude towards tobacco use, “eliminate secondhand smoke exposure” and “make it easier for smokers to quit [...] [which] is especially important because 99 percent of smokers start smoking before turning 26 years old.” According to a national poll of 2,880 adults conducted by CVS Health, the Truth Initiative and the American Cancer Society, having a tobacco-free campus plays an important role in college choice for about 57 percent of college students and 53 percent of parents. The same study found that 73 percent of college students encounter advertising for tobacco companies one or more times per week, compared to just 51 percent of respondents overall; this suggests that college students could be more likely than other demographics to be exposed to media that promotes smoking, and may be at a higher risk of developing a smoking habit.
Student responses to the recent change in policy have varied widely in both nature and intensity of opinion. To many, student health should be the main concern in this debate. For example, Paxton sees the new policy as a “positive change” that will allow community members to “feel safe and comfortable on campus, especially students with respiratory issues.”
Paxton has “personally heard from many students who have asthma attacks […] because of the prevalence of smoking on campus.” She added that moking can have deadly impacts and that she knows of students on campus that have been personally affected by the consequences of smoking.
“By implementing this policy and making MHC smoke-free, the College is recognizing the pain that the tobacco industry has caused so many of us,” Paxton said.
Alex Nesci ’20 also supports the change in policy, “mostly because the ban on smoking at MHC should be a deterrent to littering on school property. I’m a junior and at least since I arrived at MHC the litter situation on campus has been out of control […] Nobody has an inherent right to smoke on a private campus, and I’m glad the College took action against cigarette litter,” said Nesci.
But as reflected in a currently-circulating petition in opposition to the new policy, a full ban may have undesirable social implications.
The petition, which has amassed 36 signatures as of Feb. 13, called for specific measures to help students quit smoking, and also touched on potential implications for marginalized communities at Mount Holyoke. It noted that “enforcing this policy […] would only increase negative interactions between Campus Police and the student body, putting marginalized groups at risk,” while also drawing attention to the fact that “big tobacco companies purposefully target specific communities.” The petition went on to worry that the policy would discourage “often low-income” prospective students who are already smokers.
Tobacco industries have historically used advertisements to specifically target marginalized groups, including people of color and those who are LGBTQ+, neurodiverse or low-income. For this reason, some claim that the implementation of a smoke-free policy in itself carries with it prejudices such as racism, homophobia, transphobia and classism.
“As a low-income student from a family of smokers,” said Emily Stewart ’19, author of the aforementioned petition, “going entirely smoke-free is a move that doesn’t acknowledge the systematic marketing of cigarettes to poor/LGBTQ folks, and I didn’t want the college I’ve poured so much money into to make that decision.”
Paxton sees the issues differently: she believes the ban can be Mount Holyoke’s way of “fighting back against [the tobacco industry’s] unethical business tactics.” She suspects that “if people would look past their guttural reactions, they would see the different sides of this issue.”
Mount Holyoke alum, Sim Serhan ’17, thinks that for some, smoking cigarettes can be a valid way to “deal with stress and anxiety,” as not everyone has the “time and money for therapy […] or an emotional support animal.”
“For students who do not have the means to care for a pet, [ESAs are not] an option,” Serhan argued. “Cigarettes are like $10 […] [which is] nowhere near the cost required to care for an animal. If students are allowed ESAs, why can’t they be allowed cigarettes?”
Serhan also called attention to the impact a smoking ban might have on the more frequently overlooked members of Mount Holyoke’s staff, particularly “dining workers, janitors, and [members of] facilities management […] many of whom smoke cigarettes.”
According to Liz Laird, a task force member and the Assistant Director of Assessment for the Department of Institutional Planning and Research, task force representatives of “the workers in dining pushed for smoking areas, butt cans, etc., rather than a ban, especially since Blanchard’s location makes it nearly impossible for them to go off campus to smoke.”
Respect for some staff’s choice to smoke is one reason why many, including Stewart, consider the new policy to be “too drastic a step towards creating a healthier campus, so much so that it has created an unhealthy environment.” To Stewart, there were other, more inclusive ways to solve this problem, for example, “Why not just create a designated smoking area to better accommodate?”
“I see this policy affecting the Mount Holyoke community by making low-income prospective students unwelcome — it would have made me feel that way,” said Stewart. “I see it making current students who smoke and will not be graduating by 2020 feel unwelcome and unsupported. I see it making one of my favorite dining staff members look for other employment, [as I heard her say] to a friend, ‘The policy won’t take effect until 2020. That gives me a year to find another job.’”
Others take issue with the way the College reached this conclusion. Ryan Lewis, National Fellowships Advisor from the Office of Student Success and Advising, expected to feel more involved in the decision-making process as a member of the task force. “Personally, I’m not sure I’m in favor of being 100 percent smoke-free,” he said, “and as a task force, our recommendation was actually overwhelmingly to not move forward with making a smoke-free campus yet. But it felt like the officers were already there in the decision to go all in.”
According to Lewis, a healthy environment and student body might not be the only motives to going smoke-free, as he believes that there may be “an image piece to it as well...by [banning smoking] we send a message that we are on par with other liberal arts colleges [in that we’re] moving towards a healthier community.”
Frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of payoff for hard work, Lewis suspects that the task force may have been “largely for show.” Though seemingly democratic in its inclusion of varyingly opinionated voices, he felt that the task force was treated as less about actual decision-making than it was about “taking a temperature” to gauge how the community might react to the policy.
DesFosses, the second of the two original students to raise concerns about smoking, considered “the task force to be democratic,” but is sure “others felt differently.” “I think everybody on the task force had to compromise a little bit,” she said, “However, I don’t believe that the decision President Stephens made necessarily reflects this compromise.”
The influence of the task force in actual decision-making may be up for debate, but according to Stephens’ email, it was ultimately the “officers,” not the task force, who “decided to accelerate [the] effort by setting a firm goal of becoming a smoke-free campus by June 2020.”
Paxton and DesFosses urge those opposed to a smoking ban to consider this change within a larger context. “While I understand the concerns, I think people also need to recognize that this is not a radical change,” said Paxton, noting that many other institutions across the nation have already gone smoke-free. “If anything,” she added, “Mount Holyoke is behind the curve.”
Meanwhile, DesFosses hopes “that people can open their minds a little bit and realize some of the benefits of this policy, while also voicing their concerns to the administration in a constructive way that makes the policy more effective.”