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ISU Campus Smoking Research

On July 1, 2015, the Smoke-Free Campus Act went into effect at Illinois State and all other public universities in the state of Illinois. The Act prohibits smoking and the use of all tobacco products on campus property. However, no rule or law garners 100% compliance (see Jancey et al. 2014 for some reasons why people may be non-compliant with campus smoking bans). As such, evidence for tobacco use and smoking behavior still exists around campus. Much of this behavior leaves material remains, largely in the form of discarded cigarette butts. Archaeology is the study of material remains from the past (either distant or recent), making it perfectly suited to studying continued smoking behavior on campus in the face of the smoking ban. 

While a number of studies have examined the distribution of cigarette butts on non-smoking college campuses (Lee et al. 2013; Pires et al. 2016; Sawdey et al. 2011; Seitz et al. 2012), I feel that an archaeological eye and anthropological understanding is necessary to fully analyze smoking behavior in this context. Plus it provides an opportunity for students to learn valuable field archaeology skills (survey design, piece plotting, map making, etc.) at renewable archaeological sites. The following is a brief summary of some of our main findings. A “how to” guide is published, open access with the Journal of Archaeology and Education (

Update on Fieldwork and Analysis

During Fall Semester 2017, students in Midwestern Archaeology studied smoking behavior around the campus residence halls. We noticed distinct patterns in the brands of cigarettes at the main smoking sites associated with each residence hall (see charts below). Some of the differences seem to relate to the ‘status’ of smokers with TT site 3 likely used by University staff and TT site 2 likely used by Student foodservice workers. Yet there are substantial differences between the sites presumably used by students in the residence halls as illustrated by MH site 2 and Watterson. What factors might cause these differences?


During Fall semester 2016, 12 students in Midwestern Archaeology conducted one hour surface collections at five different areas around campus. The areas surveyed were outside of Milner Library (both a raised concrete plaza and a landscaped courtyard), Schroeder Hall (an administrative and classroom building), Watterson Tower (dormitories), and Watterson Dining Commons. Students were equipped with “trash pickers”, paper bags, and sterile gloves (at a cost of less than $5 per student) while each student provided their own hand-held GPS device (i.e. cell phone). Upon encountering evidence of smoking behavior– which largely took the form of cigarette butts but also included cigarette packages, plastic cigarillo mouthpieces, and lighters– students recorded the GPS location and collected the “artifact”. Upon completion of the surface collection, each bag was labeled with the collection area, date, and student name. Students completed a form in which they drew a sketch map of the area surveyed and provided their interpretations for why concentrations of smoking related items occurred in some areas but not others.


Overall, our surface collection covered about 35,000 square meters. Students recovered 2,617 smoking-related artifacts. In other words, on average there are about 7.5 smoking-related artifacts (largely cigarette butts) per 100 square meters in the areas we surveyed. 

Name of Surveyed Area# CollectedDensity
(per 100 square meters)
Bone Center Courtyard2166.17
Milner Plaza2075.75
Watterson Tower69818.86
Watterson Dining1301/54
Schroeder Hall64710.96

Primary Refuse and Formation Processes

Students quickly realized that the distribution of cigarette butts did not perfectly reflect the places where smoking occurred. Some clusters seemed to be “primary refuse” discarded and recovered at the smoking location (Schiffer 1972:160). In other cases, the cigarette butts were mixed in with piles of leaves, dead insects (it was a big year for cicadas), and other trash. Clearly some formation processes (Schiffer 1983) had altered the distribution of these artifacts.

Luckily for us, it was relatively simple to identify primary refuse deposits. These deposits were characterized by relatively recent cigarette butts (see below for estimates of length since discard) that were not mixed in with other types of debris. They tended to occur near benches, tables, and other seating areas. Another popular setting were spots that offered a lot of privacy. These included the backside of buildings or secluded walkways.

Natural formation processes–such as wind and water–helped to create deposits of cigarette butts mixed in with lots of other debris. Many times, very old cigarette butts occurred in large numbers in these deposits. Cigarette butts also commonly were found stuck in sidewalk cracks or at the edge of landscape beds full of mulch.

Accumulation Rates

We surface collected two areas twice (Milner Plaza and Schroeder Hall) under the assumption that the second collection would give us an idea of the average number of cigarette butts discarded per day, aka the accumulation rate. We first surface collected Milner Plaza on August 31 and recorded 207 smoking-related items. Twenty-six days later on September 26, we surveyed the area again and collected 247 items. At Schroeder Hall, there were 12 days in between our surface collections (September 14 and September 26). In the first surface collection we recorded 647 items and in the second 472. At first glance this suggests an exponentially higher accumulation rate at Schroeder than Milner as nearly twice as many cigarette butts were recovered with only about half the time in between surveys. But the raw results are deceiving as one student discovered a set of makeshift ashtrays in rock filled flowerbed-like platforms behind a raised brick wall along the steps to one entrance of Schroeder. I am still processing the data but students report that at least 200 cigarette butts came from this area. 

Another confounding factor for the accumulation rate calculation, is the “age” of the cigarette butts as represented by the time since discard. Using experimental data on cigarette butt decomposition from Bonanomi et al. (2015), students classified cigarette butts from the first and second surface collections at Milner Plaza and Schroeder Hall into three categories (<30 days, 31 days to 2 years, >2 years). Results indicate that 40-50% of cigarette butts collected in the initial survey of both areas were discarded more than two years ago. With a 100% collection rate, all of the butts collected during the second survey should fall into the under 30 day category. This was very close to the case at Milner as about 82% of cigarette butts from the September 26 collection fell into this category. The percentage of less than one month old cigarettes at Schroeder actually rose in the second collection but so did the “> two years” category. A big reason for this is the discovery of the new makeshift ashtray deposits. But other factors were probably at play as well. For example, Milner Plaza is nearly completely concrete, increasing the surface visibility. The grounds around Schroeder contain numerous grassy areas and mulch covered flower beds that impede the recognition of surface artifacts.

Further Laboratory Analysis

No archaeological field project is complete without some time spent in the laboratory to process the findings. In addition to determining how long ago the cigarette butts were discarded, students spent some time analyzing the “completeness” of each cigarette butt during the lab day. We defined cigarettes as still smokeable if a substantial portion of the tobacco rod (it is a real part of a cigarette, look it up!) was present. In other words, often people do not smoke all the way down to the filter but leave what is essentially an unsmokeable nub of the tobacco rod. But sometimes 1/4, 1/2, or 3/4 of the rod is present on a discarded cigarette. We classified these as still smokeable. 

Once again we compared Schroeder Hall and Milner Plaza. At Schroeder, 2.5% of discarded cigarettes were still smokeable. On Milner Plaza, 8.4% were still smokeable. These are relatively low percentages of the total assemblage in both cases but the ratio at Milner is over three times that at Schroeder. Our tentative explanation for this difference is that Milner Plaza is a very high traffic area where smokers may be more compelled to discard their half smoked cigarette (say due to spotting law enforcement personnel) in comparison to a hidden alcove behind Schroeder Hall where smoking may occur at a more leisurely pace.

Future Work

There is lots more analysis to perform on these collections and additional fieldwork planned for the future. If you would like to be involved in this research or are interested in implementing something similar at your own university, please contact me (


Bonanomi, Giuliano, Guido Incerti, Gaspare Cesarano, Salvatore A. Gaglione, Virginia Lanzotti. 2015. Cigarette Butt Decomposition and Associated Chemical Changes Assessed by 13C CPMAS NMR. PLoSOne 10(1): e0117393.

Jancey, Jonine, Nicole Bowser, Sharyn Burns, Gemma Crawford, Linda Portsmouth,
Jennifer Smith. 2014. No Smoking Here: Examining Reasons forNoncompliance With a Smoke-Free Policy in a Large University. Nicotine and Tobacco Research 16(7):976-983.

Lee, Joseph, Leah Ranney, Adam Goldstein. 2013. Cigarette butts near building entrances: what is the impact of smoke-free college campus policies? Tobacco Control 22.2:107.

Pires, Stephen,Steven Block, Ronald Belance,Nerea Marteache. 2016. The spatial distribution of smoking violations on a no-smoking campus: Implications for prevention, Journal of American College Health, 64(1): 62-68

Sawdey, Michael, Ryan P Lindsay, Thomas E Novotny. 2016. Smoke-free college campuses: no ifs, ands or toxic butts. Tobacco Control 20:i21-i24.

Schiffer, Michael B. 1972. Archaeological Context and Systemic Context. American Antiquity 37(2): 156-175.

Schiffer, Michael B. 1983. Toward the identification of formation processes. American Antiquity 48(4):675-706.

Seitz, Christopher, Robert W. Strack, Muhsin Michael Orsini, Carrie Rosario, Christie Haugh, Rebecca Rice, David L. Wyrick, Lorelei Wagner. 2012. Quantifying Littered Cigarette Butts to Measure Effectiveness of Smoking Bans to Building Perimeters, Journal of American College Health 60(4):331-334.​​

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