What’s Intelligence got to do with it?
“Smoking is a phenomenally dumb activity,” admitted one Bates student who declined — out of concern for his campus image — to be interviewed on the record about his carcinogenic habit.
Few student smokers challenge this bit of prevailing wisdom about an activity that annually claims more than 419,000 American lives. And, despite the cool, public insouciance students can affect with a lighted cigarette, most stared wide-eyed when asked if they would mind being photographed for a story about smoking at Bates.
“You want to do what? Pictures of me smoking in Bates Magazine, the alumni magazine that my parents are going to read? Uh, I don’t think so.”
Play word association with “Batesie,” and you’ll quickly hear “intellectual,” “athletic,” “socially aware,” or “crunchy.” At a college that boasts the second-oldest Outing Club in the nation, “smoker” probably won’t make the short list.
But stroll across the Library terrace or past the benches outside Commons around lunchtime on a sunny day and you’ll swear you’re in Marlboro Country.
The number of visible smokers isn’t actually significant — fifteen or twenty students smoking at a time — but nonetheless, the juxtaposition is startling: some of the best and brightest apparently immune to the relentless antismoking campaign being waged in this country.
According to a recent Bates survey, about 16 percent of Bates students smoke, less than the national adult average of 25 percent, which has declined from 42 percent since 1965, according to the American Cancer Society. Nevertheless, smoking at Bates seems to be on the rise and has become something of a fad, at least according to students who say that a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other has become a common sight at parties.
The “parties-only” social smokers — most of whom probably wouldn’t associate with the smoking crowd in high school — are prevalent enough to have their own label: “chippers,” as in “chip away at a pack,” according to Associate Professor of Psychology Kathryn Graff Low, who teaches health psychology at Bates.
So, if smoking is dumb, and Bates students are not only smart but quite self-conscious, why, according to a recent survey by Low, do nearly two out of every ten of them do it?
For Keri Ann Fox, a physics and political science major from Bangor, Maine, smoking provides a welcome respite from a heavy work load. “I probably would quit right now, except that I know how stressful quitting is and I don’t need any extra stress right now,” said Fox, who has been steadily smoking Camel Lights — to the tune of $20 each week, including a new $.37 per-pack state tax — since last summer. “Smoking lets me take a timeout: time to breathe is kind of important,” she added with not a trace of irony.
Fox, who picked up the habit from co-workers at an all-night diner, said she plans to quit soon after graduating in May 1998. She buys a pack a day from Russell Street Variety (formerly John’s Place), the small convenience store across the street from her Residential Village dorm room, and smokes outdoors, in her room, or in some residence hall lounges deemed “smoking allowed” by a majority vote of the residents.
Another popular spot to puff is the designated smoking lounge open to students and employees in Chase Hall. “Even though smoking is a bad thing to do, like I know it can kill me, it has enabled me to talk to a lot of other people,” Fox said. “I know a lot more of the workers on this campus who are also smokers. I know what goes on behind the scenes, a lot of things most people don’t know about.”
As she grew up detesting the smell of her parents’ cigarettes, Fox continues to choose the nonsmoking section of restaurants, and she isn’t offended when people ask her to move or not to smoke. What troubles her, though, is the amount of attention paid to this one particular behavior.
“There are a whole host of other things that are equally destructive to your health and mental state. Stopping smoking is a national campaign, but people don’t look at `Cut Down on the Amount of Time You Spend Working’ as a national campaign,” she said.
Low, a nonsmoker, said she isn’t surprised nicotine is the drug of choice for some college students.
“Alcohol makes you feel relaxed, but it makes you sloppy cognitively. Nicotine is psychoactive. It’s the only drug I know of that can make you feel relaxed and enhances cognition at the same time,” Low said. “People don’t advertise that because you don’t want to promote smoking as a way of increasing concentration.”
In May 1997, Low surveyed 575 Bates students outside Commons about a variety of behaviors and preferences. In response to the question “Do you smoke cigarettes?” 16 percent of those surveyed answered yes. Five percent said they started smoking at Bates, and a little more than 8 percent said they had tried to quit smoking. (Though not included in the Low survey, anecdotal suggests that “dipping”, chewing tobacco, that is, hardly exists at Bates.)
Aside from giving themselves a cognitive boost, Low said there are many possible reasons why some Batesies smoke. As nicotine is an appetite suppressant, some young women smoke as part of a weight-control strategy. There’s also good evidence that alcohol and cigarettes are cross-addicting: when one is not inhibited from drinking, one is more likely to smoke. And Low thinks the Bates ethos, strangely enough, might also have something to do with it.
“Bates may attract more students who are more counter-culture, who are more left, and who are more willing to stand up to convention. I think it’s become a middle- and upper-middle-class convention not to smoke. I think some of it is rebellion and identification with marginalized people. There may be some resistance to becoming part of mainstream middle-class America, and one way of not doing that, not growing up to be your parents, is to smoke,” Low said.
According to Keith Tannenbaum, housing coordinator at Bates, nearly 10 percent of the classes of ’00 and ’01 identified themselves as either regular or occasional smokers in the Residence and Roommate Selection Form completed by incoming students. Though the question about smoking explicitly encourages honesty, Tannenbaum believes the reported figures may under-represent incoming smokers.
“I have found on several occasions that students have written down that they were nonsmokers and have smoked once they got here,” Tannenbaum said. “Those students have been pretty honest about the fact that the reason why they wrote they were nonsmokers is because either their parents filled out the form or they filled out the form while their parents were watching and their parents don’t know that they smoke.”
Though Taro Hagiwara’s parents disapprove of his six-year smoking habit, he said they gave up trying to discourage him from doing it a long time ago. But Hagiwara, a twenty-five-year-old senior from Kawanishi, Japan, tried to heed the advice of College choir director John Corrie about quitting. “He says that it’s bad for me and for my singing, so I stopped four days before and the day of my recent bass solo,” said Hagiwara, who also is a classical concert pianist. “I told him smoking helps me when I’m feeling stressed or nervous, but he said it’s the smoking that probably makes me nervous.”
Hagiwara admitted that his singing improved during the brief hiatus, but it wasn’t reason enough for him to stop smoking up to ten Camels per day, mostly out of doors, where he said the cool, clean Maine air makes smoking taste better. Besides, cigarette smoking has been an important part of Hagiwara’s social life at Bates and in his travels through China, Croatia, and Serbia, where he made a documentary film about smoking. “Sharing smoking with strangers is a process of friendship. Exchanging cigarettes from home is sort of a custom. You have to smoke the cigarette given to you, even if it tastes very bad, right up to the filter to show your respect for the friendship,” said Hagiwara, who regrets that Americans tend to be more judgmental about smoking.
Hagiwara and a friend did manage to quit for two “very difficult” months at Bates, but the sight of his well-intentioned comrade backsliding outside Chase Hall brought him back into the smoking fold. “He was embarrassed and stressed out by the dilemma about what he wanted and our agreement. This moment was very important to our friendship, so I said to him, `OK, give me a cigarette,’ and we enjoyed a long talk about the weakness of human beings and how difficult it is to achieve self-discipline,” he said.
Armed with a political science degree and a concentration in international studies, Hagiwara this summer will join Mitsui-Bussan, a multinational trade-management and business-consultation firm based in Japan. In addition to the solid academic preparation he received at Bates, he believes his smoking experience may benefit him in his new position.
“When I go to Eastern Europe on business, it will be good for me to smoke to make contacts because they smoke a lot there. When I come to the United States, I will stop because there’s pressure not to smoke,” said Hagiwara, who plans to quit for good once he is married and has children, citing the need to be a good role model and the dangers of second-hand smoke.
Julie DeLaite, a junior from Howland, Maine, plans to kick the habit by the first day of her senior year at Bates. According to her, the date isn’t arbitrary. “If I don’t quit by then, I know I’ll smoke way too much during thesis. I’ll have to find some other way to cope with the stress,” said DeLaite, who currently smokes two packs of Camel Lights per week.
DeLaite didn’t smoke until last summer, when she began joining co-workers at a Bar Harbor inn for a social cigarette. Despite the loss of her great-grandmother to smoking-induced emphysema and the occasional sore throats and headaches DeLaite directly attributes to her habit, smoking continues to be a function of socializing and stress management at Bates. Though she says she understands the dangers of smoking, DeLaite, a psychology major, also recognizes the potent psychological aspects of addiction. In a health psychology course taught by Low, DeLaite wrote a case study of addiction about her closest friend, a fellow psych major and half-a-pack-a-day smoker. The exercise, which led to the development of a yet-to-be-tried intervention strategy to quit smoking, was enlightening and disconcerting.
“I realized that when I see her, even if she isn’t smoking, it’s like a cue for me to start smoking. It’s kind of awful to think of a friend and then think about cigarettes, but it’s true and I think she feels the same way. My intervention strategy probably should have required us to discontinue this friendship, so we wouldn’t be smoking half as much,” said DeLaite, who often finds herself smoking with the subject of her study in the Coram Library computer lab, on the Library terrace, and in the hallway outside her room in John Bertram.
Though DeLaite said she has never felt persecuted about her smoking at Bates, she is concerned about the image she may be projecting, based on the unflattering opinion of smokers she held before she was hooked. Inhaling in front of her peers isn’t an issue, but she has held a lit cigarette behind her back during an unexpected encounter with one of her professors.
“I would never want Kathy Low to see me smoke because she’s always talking about high-risk behaviors in our health-psych class,” she said. “Except for smoking, I don’t worry about what people think of me. I know it’s associated with bad things or a weakness. I guess if I’m going to be bothered by what people think, I shouldn’t be doing it.”