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March 5, 2009

Butt is it art?

Two creations that illustrate the impact of cigarettes on public health are winners in a “butt art” contest conceived by Pitt’s Reduce Smoking and Exposure to Tobacco (ReSET) Center. Funded by the Graduate School of Public Health and the Office of Research, the center aims to reduce tobacco exposure through research and education.

ReSET director Stephanie Land, a GSPH research professor, said anti-smoking groups on other university campuses have collected cigarette butts and displayed them in glass jars to illustrate the impact of smoking. Land said she wanted to go beyond that to create an object that might better depict the impact of the tossed butts.

Yardlee Kauffman, the fifth-year pharmacy student who coordinated the Pitt cigarette butt collection event, organized the art contest with Land.

While the individual impacts of cigarette smoking are well-known, “It’s more of a public health issue than people realize,” Land said, adding that beyond being unsightly and costly to clean up, the toxins that are trapped in cigarette filters are released into waterways when the cast-off butts are washed into storm drains.

Finding the materials to get the artists started wasn’t hard. It took only about an hour to collect 12 cups of cigarette butts on campus — all within 15 feet of doorways, where smokers were spotted in spite of campus policy prohibiting smoking near main building entrances, Land said.

Project proposals were solicited in December with the promise of a $100 prize.

In the end, two complementary interpretations of the theme were chosen — one emphasizes the individual effects of smoking; the other represents the more global public health impact of tobacco use.

Fifth-year pharmacy student Ana Lungu’s project, “You Must Tend to Your Planet,” features a sphere covered with pictures of natural beauty, representing the earth. In contrast, stark, leafless branches spring from a vase filled with cigarette butts.

Banners entwined in the branches are inscribed with a quote from Lungu’s favorite book, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” “‘It’s a question of discipline,’ the little prince told me later on. ‘When you’ve finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend to your planet’” and Lungu’s own admonition: “Billions of cigarette butts plague our planet every day. Our world deserves better. It is our duty to preserve its beauty.”

In her entry proposal, Lungu stated that her project is “meant to evoke respect for the planet and inspire responsibility for our world.”

Fourth-year pharmacy student Alexa Ray took a more individually oriented approach. Her project, “Think About It,” depicts a life-size stick-figure human with lungs made of cigarette butts. Just below, a red exclamation mark with the message, “Think about it,” emphasizes her point.

The two art objects will be displayed at ReSET events, Land said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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