By Bob Swoap, Professor of Psychology
In the previous issue of The Echo (February 6, 2014), Kaitlyn Waters asks some important questions about smoking on our campus: ”How many of your friends smoke regularly?” “What is it about [our environment] that makes the percentage of people who smoke cigarettes higher than the national average?” And “Why would a student body so otherwise concerned about eating organically and being active be engaged with something so deadly?” I applaud Kaitlyn for creating her photo essay, asking these difficult questions, and examining her own draw to the smoking hut.
Warren Wilson College, often on the cutting edge of sustainability, is behind the curve on this issue. Young adults do smoke at a higher rate (25-30%) than the national average (18%). The last time I did a survey (2006), using stratified random sampling, about 50% of the students who responded indicated smoking at least once in the previous 30 days. Approximately 30% reported smoking most or all days over the previous month. What is frightening is that each day, an estimated 2,100 youth and young adults who have been occasional smokers become daily cigarette smokers (CDC). Further, more than 2/3 of adult smokers state that they want to quit smoking.
When I arrived at Wilson in the late 1990s, community members could smoke almost anywhere on campus. The technical “25-foot smoke-free zone” near entryways was mostly ignored. Cigarettes were lit before the door even shut on the way out of Gladfelter. And forget trying to walk into Jensen from the upper patio; the second-hand smoke there was overpowering.
It always struck me as odd that this campus with a commitment to the environment, sustainability, and wellness was so cavalier in its attitude toward smoking. And so, in 2006, I wrote a proposal for a smoke-free campus. My background as a health psychologist with expertise in behavioral medicine didn’t carry much weight. While the staff forum approved the policy, the student caucus rejected it. Shared governance led to a compromise committee that amended the policy, which was approved in 2007.
The amended policy included the construction of smoking “huts,” which would give students, staff, and faculty a place to smoke out of the rain. But where many of us had envisioned a few small huts located on the edges of central campus, construction began on the smoking palaces. Situated in prominent locations between two first-year residence halls and at the foot of the bridge, near Gladfelter, these huts became more than just an accommodation for regular smokers. Instead, they functioned as a magnet, providing a meeting place to chat, relax, and connect. “Back home, I’d never tried smoking before and never really had the urge,” writes Kaitlyn. “But spending a lot of my time around so many people who are comfortable smoking has made me look at it much more casually, and I’ve noticed that each time I smoke here, I’m only doing it while I’m around my friends.”
Kaitlyn captures what seems to happen with the huts: smoking as a social activity rooted in place. Many try their first cigarettes there. And, for me, if just one of these students ends up becoming a regular smoker, then I feel some responsibility, not because students are exercising their freedom, but because our institution facilitates the initiation of smoking. There are a few support systems in place for those students or staff who want to quit smoking, but these are neither promoted nor utilized much. “If you ask college students, many will tell you it’s something they don’t intend to do after they’re out of school, but a significant number do continue smoking. What we know is there’s no safe level of smoking and no way to know that once you start you’ll be able to easily quit,” says Dr. Nicole Cronk, assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri.
I often wonder what it will take for Warren Wilson College to become a smoke-free campus and stand behind its core values: two of the six values connected to our Mission Statement are sustainability and wellness. Skeptics might say that students at Warren Wilson College value personal freedom more than sustainability and wellness, and with shared governance, students would not likely approve a policy that violated their individual rights. But with our focus on recruitment and retention, I would argue that current and prospective students and their families would value an institution that valued healthy communities. There are now more than 1,000 smoke-free colleges and universities across the country such as Emory University, the University of Kentucky, Lees McRae College, including dozens of campuses in North Carolina.
Implementing 100% smoke-free environments is the only effective way to protect our population from the harmful effects of exposure to secondhand smoke. And while I love breathing fresh air, what really drives me to write this column is the future of students like Kaitlyn. I hope that we as an institution can serve her and her classmates better. The smoking huts aren’t the whole problem, obviously. The sociocultural factors around smoking here are complex. But I do wonder. Where do we want to go from here? Where should we go from here?