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Student voices invited on smoke-free idea

cigarette butt
Smokers and nonsmokers alike complain about cigarette butt litter. Photos by Diana Arbas.

Smokers can no longer light up in two areas of the Mills College campus, which may mark the beginning of a gradual approach to going smoke-free — if the campus community decides that’s what’s best.

The Art buildings and School of Education/Children’s School complex are the college’s first non-smoking zones. These zones are in addition to the existing college policy: Smoking is already not allowed in any student residence, any campus building or within 30 feet of building entrances, doors or windows.

“In my ideal world, I’d like to see the campus go smoke-free, but that may not be realistic,” said Annie Neves, co-chair of the newly reconstituted Smoking Committee — although Neves likes to call it the (non)Smoking Committee. “Winnowing it down as much as possible so that everyone’s happy is the key goal.”

The Smoking Committee would like to respect the needs of both smokers and nonsmokers, but the bottom line is health. There are people, for instance, who are allergic to smoke or have asthma, Neves said.

Junior Chelsea Ekholm had a lot of problems with asthma growing up. Her father and his side of the family had smoked for a long time, and Ekholm points to their habit as the unintentional cause of her illness.

“At one point, I was sick at the same time as I was having a bout of asthma, and I was coughing so much I could hardly speak,” she said. “It was terrible.”

Ekholm said she doesn’t want to have to deal with secondhand smoke when she goes to Adams Plaza.

“Really, I just don’t want my health to be impacted more than it has been,” Ekholm said. “This is an area I go through a lot because of my classes, the bookstore and the Tea Shop. There have been six smokers lined up out there on those steps in the middle of the day, not giving a care, with the most foot traffic going by.”

cig packsBut not all smokers are created equal. A senior, who has asked to remain anonymous, smokes occasionally and said she and her friends who smoke do care about being considerate to others.

“I try not to smoke around people,” the student said. “I hate secondhand smoke coming into buildings; it drives me crazy. My friends on campus who smoke feel the same way. We don’t want to be around secondhand smoke when we’re not smoking, and we all don’t want to affect the health of anyone else.”

The student said bad smoking etiquette impacts everyone, smokers and nonsmokers alike: “When someone comes into class reeking of cigarettes, it makes the rest of us look bad.”

Still, the student said, a smoke-free campus would be impossible.

“It doesn’t make sense for campus residents to go across the street at night, in the dark, to smoke a cigarette,” the student said. “And as someone who smokes during finals and midterms, I would be a lot harder to get along with if I couldn’t. I just feel like I couldn’t survive the uber-stressful parts of school without that outlet.”

Seniors Jessica Reyes and Amanda McFarland spoke to The Campanil while on their smoking break. Reyes said it’s totally acceptable for the Children’s School to be made a non-smoking zone, but an entirely smoke-free campus isn’t necessary.

“I don’t think smoking is that much of a burden,” Reyes said. “I think smokers should definitely be respectful and stay away from doors. I’m not going to sit next to five people and start smoking if I know they’re not okay with it.”

McFarland agreed, saying it’d be respectful for the college to leave smoking regulation to the students themselves. By the same token, student smokers should show the same respect and dispose of their cigarette butts properly.

“I’m holding onto my cigarette butt,” McFarland said. “Then I’ll walk over and find a trash can. Smokers aren’t bad people. We don’t just want to destroy the campus.”

The student who wished to remain anonymous also cited cigarette butts as an issue. Designated smoking areas with ashtrays would definitely help.

“A lot of smokers litter,” she said. “Animals eat discarded cigarette butts and can get sick. The butts go into the creek and biodegrade. It’s just chemicals. It’s not like there is a part of it that isn’t harmful. And as an aesthetic thing, it doesn’t look clean. Part of Mills is being all pretty and green.”

art plaza
The Art complex was made a non-smoking zone over the summer. The other non-smoking zone is the School of Education/Children's School complex.


bird bath close up
Cigarette butts and trash can still be found in a bird bath on the Art plaza.

Linda Zitzner, who co-chairs the Smoking Committee with Neves, said that it’s about the wellness of the campus along with the wellness of the individual.

“We’ve had some pretty significant sustainability initiatives on this campus,” Zitzner said. “One of the things that we’re looking at is that leaching of tobacco from discarded butts. There’s a lot of carcinogen in those. It goes right into the soil. We’re right above a major groundwater stream into Oakland, so all that leaches right into the water. We end up contributing to some of the contamination. We’d like to see that reduced as well.”

Zitzner said that working on the campus smoking issue is going to be a tough process.

“We’re not going to go one day where we just say, ‘Okay, no more smoking after this.’ It’s a process to build knowledge, build alternatives, be sensitive to everybody’s needs and rights, really create that balance and hopefully move toward a non-smoking campus,” Zitzner said. “That would be the ideal.”

That would be Ekholm’s ideal, too. To her, the compromise of designated smoking areas might not be good enough. She already doesn’t see the 30-foot rule enforced very well.

“I’m sure Public Safety would respond right away if something serious happened like a robbery or, God forbid, a murder, but I don’t know how seriously they would take someone smoking in non-designated areas,” Ekholm said.

Enforcement is the responsibility of the entire campus, Zitzner wrote in an e-mail.

“Anyone who sees a violation should feel empowered to remind (smokers) they need to move to the 30-foot perimeter. For those who don’t feel they can do that, they can seek a DPS (or other) staff person for enforcement. If they aren’t getting adequate support, report the incident to me,” Zitzner writes. “Try to get the name of the officer or staff person involved so we can do extra training with these individuals.”

Reyes has seen young teens who’ve felt empowered enough to say something about her own smoking, and she thinks it’s great. Reyes and McFarland, who are both older than the traditionally-aged college students, said that the times have changed and it seems like it’s no longer cool for teens and young adults to smoke.

Reyes was smoking outside a movie theater when two young girls walked by. “They were probably 15. They were like, ‘Oh my God. That’s so gross.’ They said something out loud,” Reyes said. “I felt bad! I felt ashamed of myself—’”

“That’s not right,” McFarland chimed in.

“But no, good for them,” Reyes said. “Yeah, it’s gross. Don’t smoke.”

Meanwhile, Mills isn’t going smoke-free tomorrow.

“Right now, we need to take small steps toward an entire road map to a smoke-free campus, if that makes sense for Mills,” Zitzner said. “Maybe it doesn’t.”

Maybe the campus community would prefer designated smoking areas — like a number of students, alumni and at least one outside community member have already done on the Mills College Facebook page — that keep smoke from wafting into buildings or pathways.

“There are a lot of options to explore,” Zitzner said. “We’re doing it carefully and thoughtfully. I think if we’ve got any hope for success of getting compliance for our existing rules and regulations, we need to be inclusive, transparent and thoughtful.”

“And be creative about it too,” Neves said. “That’s the big thing.”

The Smoking Committee invites student feedback about how and whether to make Mills College a smoke-free campus. The Mills community is encouraged to email co-chairs Linda Zitzner ( and Annie Neves ( with questions, suggestions or concerns.