College Smokers

For Greg Spritzer, college and nicotine go hand in hand. A 26-year-old student at Montana State University, Spritzer never smoked in high school, and he manages to go cold turkey over the summers. But as soon as a new semester starts, he’s back to six or seven cigarettes a day. What is it about college life that lures him to smoke? Stress? Peer pressure? “It’s mainly boredom,” Spritzer says.

Of course, it’s not just boredom: It’s the pervasive connection in our culture between smoking and that ever-elusive quality, cool. In polls, teens and twenty-somethings invariably cite social status and “looking cool” as the main reasons they started smoking. And according to the American Lung Association, the most common situation in which young people first try a cigarette is in the company of a friend who already smokes.

The good news is that smoking rates on college campuses have fallen to their lowest rate since 1980. In 2006, about 1 in 5 college students smoked, according to a report by the American Lung Association. But there is still much work to be done to help students and colleges to break their addiction to tobacco.

‘Smoking lost in the shuffle’

Until recently, health experts largely ignored smoking on college campuses, says Henry Wechsler, PhD, a researcher with the Harvard School of Public Health. “Alcohol is such a major issue [in college] that smoking kind of got lost in the shuffle,” he says. But in the last decade, smoking on campus has become a hot topic, and for good reason: The college years are crucial in making or breaking an addiction.

Some smokers, like Spritzer, take their first puffs in college. (Spritzer himself got started when someone passed around cheap cigars during a late-night card game.) Other students experiment with cigarettes in high school but start smoking heavily in college. And like smokers of any age, many college students are actively trying to quit.

The importance of the college years hasn’t been lost on the tobacco companies, says John Pierce, PhD, head of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the University of California, San Diego. “The industry has been focusing heavily on getting its promotional material to college students,” he says. In some ways, he says, college students are the perfect audience. They’re old enough to buy cigarettes but young enough to be highly receptive to ads promoting a hip, fun lifestyle.

Whereas the tobacco industry used to focus on advertising in magazines and newspapers popular with college students, they have begun to shift their marketing strategies to the heart of campus life. Tobacco companies throw parties in on-campus bars, give away hip merchandise, and sponsor concerts and other events, some of which require the purchase of cigarettes to gain admittance. A study of more than 10,000 U.S. college students, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2005, found an association between attending such events and higher levels of student smoking. The study, based on data from the 2001 Harvard College Alcohol Study, also found that nearly 1 in 10 students had attended a bar, nightclub or campus student event where cigarettes were given away during the academic year. In 2005, the tobacco industry spent over $214 million on entertainment events and another $230 million on specialty item distribution of products, often with their logos on it.

Clearing the air

Besides being bombarded by ads from Big Tobacco, students face another obstacle. When the allure of smoking finally wears off and students are ready to quit, there are often few support services available to help them break the habit. According to a survey by Harvard’s Wechsler and colleagues, out of 393 four-year colleges, fewer than 60 percent offered any sort of smoking cessation programs. And those that did exist were poorly publicized or not well designed to appeal to college-aged smokers.

Colleges could also take steps to make it harder for students to smoke, Wechsler says. According to a 2008 report by the American Lung Association, more than 130 colleges and universities have banned smoking on the entire campus, including outdoor areas and another 500 ban smoking in student housing. When colleges do take a stand, it makes a big difference. The Journal of American College Health reported in March, 2001 that nonsmoking students are 40 percent less likely to take up the habit when they live in smoke-free dorms.

As a nursing student, Greg Spritzer knows that six or seven cigarettes a day are six or seven too many. He plans to quit as soon as he finds a place of his own to live off-campus. Of course, finally getting that degree wouldn’t hurt, either.

Further Resources

American Lung Association. Factsheet on teenagers and smoking.

Download the acrobat reader file for a special report on how tobacco companies are marketing to college students:


Interview with Henry Wechsler, PhD, researcher with the Harvard University School of Public Health

Interview with John Pierce, PhD, head of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the University of California, San Diego.

Rigotti NA et al. US college students’ exposure to tobacco promotions: prevalence and association with tobacco use. American Journal of Public Health. January, 2005. 95(1): 138-44.

Rigotti NA et al. US college students’ use of tobacco products. Journal of the American Medical Association. August 9, 2000. 284(6): 699-705.

Wechsler, H et al. Increased levels of cigarette use among college students: A cause for national concern. Journal of the American Medical Association. November 18, 1998. 280(19): 280(19): 1673-1678.

American Lung Association Big Tobacco on Campus: Finding the Addiction. August 2008.

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