A Third of College Students Smoke

ByMelissa Schorr

B O S T O N, Aug. 8, 2000 -- Despite crusades and campaigns encouraging young people not to take up smoking, a third are currently using tobacco products, a number greater than previously believed, researchers said today.

Previous research examined cigarette smoking in college students, but failed to ask about the use of other tobacco products, such as cigars, which added significantly to the findings and may give researchers new insights into how to target smoking on campus.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health surveyed more than 14,000 students at 119 colleges nationwide, asking them to report on their lifetime use of tobacco.

The results were announced today at the “World Conference on Tobacco OR Health” in Chicago and were also published in a special issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association devoted to tobacco research.

Still Smoking

A third of the students said they had used a tobacco product — cigarettes, chewing tobacco and increasingly, cigars — in the last four weeks, indicating they were current users, and nearly half of the students admitted they had used tobacco in the past year.

Between 1993 and 1997, the number of U.S. college students who smoked cigarettes increased from 22 percent to 28 percent, the study reports. Researchers suspected that use of other tobacco products, such as cigars, was on the rise as well, but had never asked the question.

Their suspicions proved correct. In the current study, 23 percent of college students said they had smoked a cigar in the last year and 9 percent reported they were current cigar users, while only 3.7 percent said they currently use chewing tobacco and 1.2 percent said they currently smoke pipes. Those findings brought the total tobacco use up to 33 percent.

Playing With Fire?

Researchers blamed the rise in cigar use among young adults on the cigar industry’s successful marketing push in the early ’90s, which made cigar bars and magazines trendy.

“College students are playing with fire, putting themselves at risk of a lifelong addiction to nicotine,” says lead author Dr. Nancy Rigotti, director of tobacco research and treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Men and women now smoke cigarettes in equal numbers, but because men tend to use cigars and chewing tobacco more often than women, the percentage of male smokers is higher overall. Whether women will close the gender gap in cigars and chewing tobacco remains a concern, researchers say.

Although the tobacco industry repeatedly insists it only markets its wares to those of legal age, the students reported the average age they tried their first cigarette was 14, and the average age they’d first tried a cigar was 17 for boys and 18 for girls.

On the bright side, cigarette use by college students, while on the rise during the mid ’90s, seems to have stabilized from 1997 to 1999 at about 28 percent.

And a third of the current cigarette smokers said they do not smoke every day, indicating they are only casual users.

Risky Business Not surprisingly, the study found that tobacco use is higher among binge drinkers — the old “ I-only-smoke-when-I-drink” excuse — and among students who have multiple sex partners or have what researchers dub “a strong party orientation.”

“Use of tobacco products goes along with a generally riskier lifestyle,” Rigotti says.

The researchers are advocating that all buildings on college campuses should go completely smoke-free, banning smoking from dorm rooms and common living areas.

“This would protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke and reduce the visibility of smoking on campus,” Rigotti says.

Current policy at colleges varies. At Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., for example, the online student handbook notes that smoking is banned in all common areas and student bedrooms. But several colleges still allow smoking in individual dorm rooms. At Columbia University in New York City, for example, current policy allows smoking in designated dorm rooms with roommate consent.

“Tobacco use is rising among young Americans,” Rigotti warns. “If this trend continues, it threatens to reverse the decline in U.S. adult smoking that we have witnessed over the past half-century.”

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