BY MYLA BRILLIANT ’21
Early last week, the entire Mount Holyoke community received an email from President Sonya Stephens addressing the College’s goal for a smoke-free campus by June 2020. Last spring, when the smoking ban was first proposed, the most prominent issue put forth by the ban’s advocates was the copious amounts of cigarette butts found littered around campus. While there are cigarette butt disposals provided for students, they are typically located right in front of the entrances to buildings. However, there are also signs on every building instructing people to stay at least 20 feet away while smoking. Besides the poorly-placed cigarette butt disposals, there is an outstanding lack of trash receptacles around campus and especially outside of buildings — a lack that was a major facet of campus discussion last spring. Now, it seems as though that aspect of the conversation has been lost. If littering was the main issue put forth in the conception of this smoking ban, why then did the proposed solution not aim to address it directly? I aim to shed light on the reasons why people smoke and why more consideration needs to be given before the community can decide to be “smoke-free.”
Phillip Morris, one of the country’s leading tobacco companies, published a document in 1991 that explained their new marketing strategies. Many of these strategies involved shifting their target consumer demographic to the working class, especially women and other minorities. The company recognized that smoking and tobacco consumption was declining in popularity among those with a higher socioeconomic status. Tobacco companies saw this social decline and realized they needed to target those on the outskirts of bourgeois social life. Therefore, it is particularly the marginalized who are directly preyed upon by Big Tobacco and have less control over whether they get addicted or not. Employers then perpetuate the problem with the way many low-wage jobs are structured: for example, many service industry jobs do not allow breaks from physically demanding labor unless their employees smoke cigarettes.
This environment makes it incredibly easy for people to start smoking and nearly impossible to quit, especially without access to support or resources. Many of the College’s employees, especially those who work in Dining Services and groundskeeping, smoke on their work breaks. Does the College plan to provide adequate counseling to staff as well? Will the College refuse to hire workers with a nicotine addiction? Will workers be forced to quit their jobs if they cannot find help?
Another group that is more vulnerable to addiction is those with mental illnesses. Depressive brains often contain lower levels of dopamine than their non-depressive counterparts. Smoking cigarettes can serve as a way to temporarily increase levels of dopamine, which puts people with depression at a higher risk for developing a chemical dependency. Along with anxiety and depression, other mental illnesses associated with higher rates of smoking include bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and PTSD. “Smoking is often a coping mechanism, and while it is not necessarily viewed as an ideal coping mechanism, it is also by no means the most destructive one,” said Alma Bartnik ’20. “For students who occupy marginalized positions already, especially those who experience mental illness, smoking can provide a sense of relief. I don’t think that it’s anyone’s right to take that away, especially without the promise of offering something better in its place.”
Something crucial to remember about cigarette smoking is that it is highly addictive. The rhetoric about smoking simply being a “bad habit” discounts the difficulty of addiction and enforces the idea that people with nicotine addictions are selfish, and that the responsibility is on them to personally protect their peers and their environment. “This ban will ostracize students who smoke,” Bartnik said. “I understand that some peo- ple have very real concerns about being exposed to smoke, and I understand why the needs of those students matter.” But Bartnik is concerned that a unilateral ban will encourage students to smoke in their rooms for fear of being caught, endangering students who are sensitive to smoke and further isolating those who are smoking in the first place.
Information about the ban has so far not included any information or resources about addiction. In fact, the emails and information about the ban sent to students so far do not seemingly address members of the community with an addition to tobacco or nicotine. It feels as though the College is proposing a solution for an ideal world without presenting any tangible steps toward that solution, at least none that they have made available to the public.
Stephens’ email states that the College has received a $20,000 grant from the Truth Initiative. According to ProPublica, Truth’s audits show that the company made over $67 million in net revenue in 2017. Their marketing strategy in recent years involves commercials featuring teenage puppets discovering the dangers of smoking and vaping, with the puppets vomiting from too much vaping and their heads exploding when they nd out how much nicotine is in a Juul pod. My question is, what is their goal? Why are they giving money to liberal arts colleges to further their agenda? What do both parties gain out of the relationship? Further, how are commercials with vomiting puppets supposed to provide those with a nicotine addiction the adequate help that they need? How much money that could be going to cessation programs for marginalized people is spent making those commercials?
The email left me with many more questions for the College: Is this $20,000 going toward hiring more psychologists at the counseling center? How do they plan on enforcing this ban? Will students be reprimanded or punished if they are found smoking?
The discussion around a smoke-free campus is far from over. This conversation and the decision to make Mount Holyoke a smoke-free campus should include those who occupy different positions in regards to marginalization and smoking. We need to foster a sense of community and trust, rather than further ostracizing and stigmatizing students who may already feel uncomfortable or scrutinized for their decisions. I propose the idea of designated smoking areas for those who choose to smoke, rather than banning the substance from campus altogether. There are reasons why people smoke, there are reasons why people do not smoke, and we as a community must give respect and attention to every reason in order to arrive at a solution that will work for everyone.