BY PAT KELLY
When I was in college back in 1969, we could smoke in class, and when I later started working in a medical research lab, we could smoke there too, even while handling blood and urine samples. We smoked on airplanes and in hospital rooms, at the bank and in movie theaters and courtrooms. Doctors were once prominently featured in cigarette ads, touting the alleged benefits of a smoke. We lit up anywhere, anytime, and the human and economic impact was deadly stupid.
Today, that dumb, tobacco-friendly world is (mostly) long gone, and I much prefer what replaced it. Except, that is, when I visit Warren Wilson College’s gorgeous campus.
I love hiking the valleys and creeks, attending student theater, buying eggs from the student-farm market, contra dancing in the gym, and taking my granddaughters to the barnyard to see the piglets and livestock being tended by students.
The college takes rightful pride in its innovative and progressive approach to education, which encompasses what’s called “The Triad”: academics, work and service. Students get a liberal arts education combined with real-life experience in problem-solving and a strong tradition of civic engagement and social justice advocacy.
But out on that stunningly beautiful campus, the tobacco-friendly culture is one deadly tradition that neither the students nor the college is taking seriously. The smoking huts and bridge across campus, the hiking trails and walkways are filled with smokers — and it’s not because there are only a few places for smokers to gather on campus. It’s because Warren Wilson has cultivated a tobacco-friendly culture, actively resisting the growing trend of tobacco-free college campuses.
As a result, the school has one of the highest rates of tobacco use of any campus in the country.
Last year, Warren Wilson student Katie Pannier presented her capstone project — “An Epidemiological Exploration of Tobacco Smoking on the Warren Wilson College Campus” — to the board of trustees. In her conclusions and recommendations, Pannier reported that:
“Thirty-day tobacco smoking prevalence at Warren Wilson College (40 percent) far surpasses the national average for full-time college students (12.5 percent) and college-aged nonstudents (25.9 percent) (Johnston, 2013). The high heavy smoking prevalence among freshmen and, thus, high visibility of smoking among freshmen could influence the initiation of social and light smoking with new peers. Since roughly two-thirds of WWC student smokers began smoking prior to attending WWC, and roughly a third began while they were attending WWC, it is recommended that the college provide a supportive environment and resources for new student smokers who want to quit. A campaign against tobacco smoking initiation, especially among freshmen, could also be beneficial. The high rate of social smoking on campus (68 percent) and tendency to smoke when feeling stressed signal the need for other, healthier social and stress outlets.”
In other words, Pannier was clearly telling the trustees that the tobacco-friendly campus is helping convert nonsmokers into smokers. To add fuel to the fire, student smokers have successfully resisted efforts over the past decade or more to reduce tobacco use and exposure on campus, arguing that the issue is a question of “rights.”
But college life is about learning not only how to advocate for individual rights but how to work with and for the interests of others. It’s about learning the work of sublimating instant gratification and ego — key elements of leadership and success.
Warren Wilson aims to encourage people to work, learn and live in a healthy environment. And like getting obnoxiously drunk or stoned, carrying a concealed weapon, playing loud music when everyone around you is trying to sleep, or bullying in all its ugly forms, tobacco use is just another behavior that gets in the way of a healthy community life.
Across the United States, colleges and universities are increasingly opting to create healthy living and working environments for students, faculty and staff alike. The Center for Tobacco Policy & Organizing predicts that nearly all college campuses in the U.S. will be 100 percent smoke-free in 10 years, according to a CNN report.
All of us — even those who choose to use tobacco — know its harmful effects. Up to 90 percent of all lung cancer deaths can be directly related to smoking tobacco. “There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona said in 2006, and those words are equally applicable now.
Today’s college students are tomorrow’s leaders, and thus, it’s important to educate them as social beings armed with emotional intelligence while giving them the benefits of tobacco-free living. The way to do that is by providing a healthy learning environment. Studies have shown that smoking affects cognitive function, including memory, and that quitting can reverse many of those effects. Student smokers who graduate are at a significant disadvantage in seeking employment or graduate studies, because smoking can disqualify them as candidates while increasing their health risks and health insurance costs.
Warren Wilson students have an outstanding reputation for environmental leadership and community service; why not turn this disgraceful situation around by taking on the tobacco companies? One of the most successful anti-smoking efforts in history saw young adults and teens target Big Tobacco. The Truth campaign emphasizes the facts about tobacco products and industry-marketing practices, without preaching or talking down to its target audience of high school- and college-aged students — basically the same group the tobacco industry targets as replacement smokers.
But whatever course they choose, it won’t be easy for either students or the administration. North Carolina’s long tradition of tobacco farming remains an important cultural influence, and the highly profitable tobacco industry has strong ties to state legislators and the economy. A recent report by the Institute for Southern Studies listed Reynolds American Inc., which owns R.J. Reynolds and other brands, among the top Tar Heel power brokers, based on lobbying power and spending in state-level elections. And at just 45 cents a pack, North Carolina ranks 45th in state cigarette taxes. The highest combined state and local tax rate is Chicago’s $6.16 per pack; New York City ranks second at $5.85, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The industry spends an estimated $392.2 million annually marketing tobacco in North Carolina, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
Clearly, our state lawmakers won’t be much help to the Warren Wilson students and faculty who want to take this on.
According to a March 10, 2015, article by NC Policy Watch, North Carolina ranks 47th in spending to persuade people to stop smoking or not start. The state was spending $17 million on smoking-prevention programs in 2011, but the new Republican majorities in the House and Senate abolished the Health and Wellness Trust Fund and slashed prevention every year, leaving only $1.2 million to fund QuitlineNC, a 24/7 telephone service offering free smoking-cessation sessions. Together with the low cost of cigarettes here, that sharp decline in funding makes the prospects for stopping new smokers or getting anyone to quit look dim.
But while it may be an uphill battle, Warren Wilson has a powerful, untapped resource — students and alumni like Katie Pannier and Kaitlyn Waters, a student photographer who published a photo essay last year called “The Allure of the Smoking Hut” in The Echo, the student newspaper. “Why would a student body so otherwise concerned about eating organically and being active be engaged with something so deadly?” Waters wrote in the accompanying text. “I feel that it has to do a lot with the smoking culture on campus.”
Pannier’s paper won her a Derieux Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research from the N.C. Academy of Science, and the board of trustees proudly touted her success.
So on May 31, the World Health Organization’s World No Tobacco Day, instead of taking sides, I hope that students, faculty and staff will stand together and apply the lessons learned from student leaders like Pannier and Waters and the more than 1,500 smoke-free U.S. campuses. Other North Carolina colleges — including A-B Tech, Montreat College, UNC Asheville and South College locally — have joined forces to implement such policies with the help of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the NC Tobacco-Free Colleges Initiative.
I hope Warren Wilson College will join the campaign to demand accountability for the money the state of North Carolina receives from the 1998 tobacco settlement — about $4.6 billion over 25 years — which was supposed to be used to address the health and financial toll of tobacco use. That money must be applied toward the stated purpose, not diverted into the general fund.
Warren Wilson can take positive steps to reduce cancer risks and promote a healthier community by declaring its intention to make the campus tobacco-free this year, helping educate the community on the benefits of quitting and the dangers of secondhand smoke, providing tobacco-cessation services, and supporting student leadership to denormalize the tobacco industry in our state.
You can help take action against the industry’s considerable influence in our state and on the health of our students and residents by signing the N.C. Alliance for Health’s petition demanding that the state’s cigarette tax be increased by at least $1 a pack (ncallianceforhealth.org/Excise-Tax-Resolution.aspx).
Pat Kelly is president of Pat Kelly Associates in Asheville, a consulting service that specializes in helping organizations build powerful movements for better health. A 28-year cancer survivor and advocate, Pat has a master’s degree in adult learning and leadership. She lives near her two granddaughters in West Asheville.