Big Tobacco smokes Warren Wilson College

The campus of Warren Wilson College.
The campus of Warren Wilson College. Courtesy of WWC

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 Hutin 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.

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21 thoughts on “Big Tobacco smokes Warren Wilson College

  1. Jim

    Freedom, how did it go? Banning is your favorite word but communist aren’t about liberty and personal choice now are they.

    • Jake

      So, where does the author promote banning cigarettes in this article? And after you answer that one, Jim, you might want to try to convince us that “banning” is not YOUR favorite word.

  2. Jim

    And as far as accountability is concerned, you expect the same system that you Pat are a part of to hold itself accountable? LOL that’s so funny. The corrupt government and especially people like you are what’s wrong with the nation.

    Take you $1 tax and shove it.

    • Jake

      Golly, Jim, you seem awfully angry and stressed this beautiful day. How ’bout you fire up another one of those cancer sticks… that might calm you down.

  3. dingus

    When I went to WWC back in the 1990’s, there were designated smoking dorms (and there were more of them than non-smoking dorms). You could buy cigarettes from the campus store. You could smoke anywhere outside.

    I was a smoker at the time, and I remember visiting the campus nurse once, where I was able to get a free prescription for welbutrin so that I could quit. It worked. That was all in thanks to their smoking-cessation program.

    I remember visiting several years later, learning that they had banned smoking near building entrances. A few years after that, they built the smoking huts, and made them the ONLY place you could smoke on campus.

    So, to say that WWC promotes a smoking culture, one need only look back a few years to see how it has actually done quite the opposite.

    • North Asheville

      The writer seems to be suggesting that Warren Wilson is supporting (or even benefiting) from the economics of Big Tobacco. Is that what she intended? Her presentation would have more credibility if she offered Warren Wilson an opportunity to respond to her accusations.

      She might have quoted someone from Warren Wilson’s administration about the smoking policy, which has been in effect since 2007:

      On central campus, the new policy designates five locations as “smoking-permitted areas,” with all other areas considered non-smoking. Central campus, for the purposes of this policy, is defined as the area on the Gladfelter side of Warren Wilson Road and extends from the campus boundary beyond the Village to the Service Road. It also includes the pedestrian bridge. On other areas of campus, our old policy guidelines still apply prohibiting smoking on the college trails or within 25 feet of a building or athletic facility. Smoking continues to be prohibited inside any campus building or vehicle.

      The covered smoking areas are (1) near the pedestrian bridge across from the exercise park, (2) at lower Carson parking lot, (3) adjacent to the trash shed behind Sunderland, (4) near the gravel parking lot next to Bryson, and (5) the fire pit area above the Village

      And she might have also cited the Allies in Substance Abuse Prevention.
      http://www.warren-wilson.edu/student/asap

      • Pat Kelly

        I disagree North Asheville – my comments might not be fair if I had not provided Warren Wilson an opportunity to respond to the concerns expressed. But they would still be supported by evidence provided by the CDC and the other credible sources referenced.

        Warren Wilson College was well aware of the growing problems described in my commentary – not because of me, but because of the efforts of their own students to raise the alarm with the administration.

        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 March 2014. 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.

        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.”

        I was so impressed with these student leaders, I met with staff from Warren Wilson College in May 2014, and in Sept., 2014. We had extensive email communications regarding the issues, including most recently a request to meet again in April 2015 and to let them know I was working on a commentary for Mountain Xpress.

        I had no response.

        • Big Al

          “Why would a student body so otherwise concerned about eating organically and being active be engaged with something so deadly?”

          Because it is “cool”, “hip”, etc.

          Just like most of the things today’s youth value most: self-glorification and self-gratification while maintaining a thin veneer of moral and ethical superiority.

          “Hey, look at me, I recycle and attend protest rallies. Never mind that I smoke dope and plan to retire at 30 while demanding that the welfare state take car of me (to include the lung cancer and COPD from my cigarettes, the Hepatitis C from my tattoos and piercings, and the alternating paranoia and polysubstance abuse from my pot use) . Hope! Change! Diversity! Sustainability! Organic! Local! Change Agent! Umm… excuse me while I think up some more hypocritical but provocative buzz words to make me look “progressive”. And I will light one up cuz it helps me cogitate. Duuuude…”

        • North Asheville

          In what way has Warren Wilson “cultivated a tobacco-friendly culture, actively resisting the growing trend of tobacco-free college campuses,” as the writer asserts? What is the writer’s evidence? Could she share some of the many emails she exchanged with them?

          It appears the school’s opposition to smoking is clear: “The College has adopted a smoking policy with the goal of positively influencing students to help them remain or become tobacco free. Smoking is not allowed in campus buildings, in campus vehicles, on porches, decks or within 25 feet of buildings. On the main campus smoking is allowed only in designated areas. Several of our residence halls are currently designated as wellness residence halls and house students who are committed to a holistic approach to living in an environment free of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Other halls or buildings may also be designated a wellness residence if there is sufficient student interest.”

          The writer conflates Warren Wilson’s not-strong-enough-in-her-opinion anti-smoking policy with support for the economic interests of Big Tobacco. That’s a serious charge. Is there evidence that Warren Wilson is benefiting from Big Tobacco money?

          It’s now time for Warren Wilson to speak up in its own defense. This commenter has no affiliation with the college but does not like to see editorials either make assertions or imply connections that are not supported with facts.

          • Pat Kelly

            The evidence provided in my commentary to support the claim that Warren Wilson “cultivated a tobacco-friendly culture, actively resisting the growing trend of tobacco-free college campuses,” was provided by WWC students.

            1.) Warren Wilson College 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 March 2014. 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 but did not act on the same recommendations they applauded.

            2.) 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.”

            3.) As for the 2007 smoking policy, times have changed considerably since WWC instituted that policy – including the ability to enforce it. Back then, there were no tobacco free colleges or universities. Today, according to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, there are now at least 1,543 100% smokefree campuses. Of these, 1043 are 100% tobacco-free, and 633 prohibit the use of e-cigarettes anywhere on campus. WWC isn’t leading the trend- they remain on the wrong end of the curve.

            Finally, I agree its time for Warren Wilson to speak up and 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.

            The tobacco industry has made students a priority. So too must academic leaders.

    • Pat Kelly

      Times have changed since we were both students. 

      Todays smoking culture at WWC is branded as such by today’s students.

      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.”

  4. Dionysis

    In spite of the fact that the nicotine addicts, those with financial interests in Big Tobacco and the dyed-in-the-wool tunnel-vison ideologues will go bonkers, this is an excellent, reasonable and tempered letter. And contrary to efforts at distorting the content, there is no call for heavy-handed banning of anything.

  5. Jay

    My father used to equate reformed smokers with reformed hookers. I’ll preface my remarks with the confession I am one of those. As an impressionable kid who joined WWII like so many of his generation, he was spoon fed Lucky Strike Goes To War camouflage green packs of cigarettes on the front lines. And why not? If ever there was a captured audience it was those boys who had nothing better to do in their foxholes than fire one up while they trembled with bullets flying overhead and they drank coffee they hated because it was the only source of heat available. Why wouldn’t one rationalize their habit for forty years as my father did. I recall him visiting me in college and being relieved that smoking was allowed in the halls and dorms. This was a man whose feet hit the ground from the bed firing one up until he stubbed one out while turning out the bedside light at night.

    He died of ALS which beat his developing lung cancer to the punch, but not by much. His advice to me when I was caught smoking at 15? ‘Well, I’ll just be damned if I pay for your cigarettes’.’ So I smoked for almost twenty years and what I remember most was the earnestness I exerted to justify every puff. Need a reason when challenged? Well, personal freedom of choice, of course. Extend that to invasion of my private life by the government. Ultimately, there’s the old reliable ‘I have the right to kill myself slowly’ all the while never mentioning the collateral damage of second hand smoke.

    So as a reformed smoker my judgment is clouded with watching every last bit of rationalization being squeezed out of institutions who allow smoking. I listen to the argument that it is far better than it used to be, as though that was enough reason to allow smoking to continue, even if it’s down to a few ‘huts’. Smoking is like being pregnant. You are either in or out. When I walk on the campus of Warren Wilson from point A to point B and a hut is in the way, that smoke I’m breathing in feels just as awful whether the smokers are crying personal freedom or not. And exchange of one freedom for another that wants a smoke free environment doesn’t cut it in my book. No such thing as being a little pregnant. The college promotes smoking by allowing huts, no matter how far less the exposure than it used to be. It’s still there killing people and the school is at fault. Smokers you can kill yourselves but don’t take passersby with you.

    Why does the school cling to smoking advocacy? As usual, my guess is a familiar one. Follow the money.

    Jay

  6. wwc student

    WWC just passed a new policy closing 2 of the smoking huts on core campus. this policy was proposed by students, and passed by the student caucus. before being passed by the college administration.

    • another wwc student

      Yes, that’s probably the most irritating part of this article, is that it seems to remove the agency of students and condescend it without actually being up-to-date on what has been happening here in relation to smoking culture and college policy. This is an ill-informed article criticizing a community that is not their own.

  7. WWC '07

    It’s good to see that WWC is still the whipping child of the Asheville area. It reminds me that somethings will never change.

    • Big Al

      Maybe Asheville will stop “whipping” WWC when WWC stops acting like entitled, smug, morally superior hypocrites. And I don’t mean the letter, I actually agree that WWC should become smoke-free like so many other institutions. But while they are at it, how about addressing the rampant drug use that remains at WWC and the equally unacceptable rationalization of smoking pot. How is it that the “progressive” communities that are so keen to attack “Big Tobacco” have no problem with the greater risks that THC poses, i.e. paranoia, loss of memory and higher brain functions and its’ proven risk as a gateway drug to far deadlier substances. Eat healthy and self-consciously, sure, but toke all you want, man, no harm there!

      Stop using WWC as a “whipping boy”? They BEG for it!

  8. WWC student

    Thank you “North Asheville” for responding well to this strange and uninformed stab at WWC, and I’d appreciate if mountainx would stick to writing about more pressing regional issues/stories. This is shameful to what some still consider “the art of journalism” and your often timely, informative, and well crafted publication We can make our own policies, thank you. ✌️

  9. WWC Student

    …Like seriously, I hope this is just a rouse to see how many WWC students read your paper.

  10. WWCstudent

    I find it absolutely hilarious that this article came out when it did, by this point Wilson had already proposed a Smoking Policy reform via student caucus, which was passed onto staff forum, and then approved by the president. The last day for the old policy was May 31st, a mere few weeks after this was posted, and the policy changes were well known and documented by our campus paper and website as they happened. (The original proposal was in Fall 2014 btw)
    Nice research MX.

    • Pat Kelly

      Good to hear there’s been progress.

      I would have included the policy change update in the article had WWC contacts responded to inquiries when researching the article.

      As for the well know publication of progress on the website, a Google search about smoking policy at WWC brought up the 2007 link http://www.warren-wilson.edu/president/new-smoking-policy

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