“College is a time when people turn smoking into a lifelong habit.”
This helps explain why, as of 2020, 2,212 colleges, nationwide, have designated themselves smoke-free areas. Of these institutions, 1,853 have gone tobacco-free, meaning smokeless tobacco is also banned. College-smoking bans are working.
A survey done at the University of Michigan one year after it implemented a smoking-ban throughout its three campuses revealed the following:
- The percentage of people who self-identified as smokers dropped from 6 percent, before the ban, to 4 percent after the ban
29% of smokers said they had cut back on smoking as a result of the ban
- While college campuses around the country are taking active steps to curb smoking rates among students, the majority of smoking habits begin even before students get to college.
The Monitoring the Future national drug and alcohol survey found that college smoking rates increased significantly in the mid-1990s, as high school students (who smoked more than college students) entered university. These findings beg the question, “why makes young people start smoking in the first place?”. The evidence shows that despite being a time of change, and initiation, many college smokers start out as high school smokers, and continue once they entered university.
The Appeal of Smoking to Young People
Why do young people start smoking? No one can conclusively answer this question. Experts have put forth theories and factors that try to help answer that question. Things like:
- Peer pressure
- Parental, or adult influence
- Marketing campaigns
- Stress relief
None of the above can be singled out for pushing young people to smoke. Instead, it is a combination of all those influences that contribute to teens picking up cigarettes. Interviews with smokers and non-smokers show as much, as people either say a parent influenced them, grew up with smokers around, or wanted to, as they say, “look cool.”
A sample of the answers given when people were asked why they started smoking:
- Erik, 30 years old – “I started smoking at 16 while working at an ice skating rink, and only the cool kids got to go on breaks, and they were smoke breaks. I wanted a break, too”.
- Sean, 27 years old – “I was 14, and I did it to fit in with the older punk kids at first.”
- Ravi, 29 years old – “I started smoking at 17, after high school graduation. I thought it was cool, something grown-ups did, and it held sex appeal, represented maturity.”
One smoker provided a different answer for why he started smoking. He said that “the novelty of being able to purchase them (cigarettes) on my 18th birthday lead to me picking up a pack of Djarum clove cigarettes for myself and some friends.”
Raising the Age Limit
Since 2016, five states have successfully raised the legal purchasing age for tobacco from 18 to 21, precisely because of what this one smoker said – only because being 18 opened the door for him to smoke, he went through. In addition to the five states who have raised the age limit statewide, individual municipalities in another 21 states have raised the purchasing age in their own jurisdictions.
The motivation behind this legislative push has been to prevent young people from ever developing a smoking habit. College smoking bans have a similar impetus, as do public smoking bans, in general. The “denormalization” of smoking, manifested by full-scale smoking bans, has been a recent tactic of tobacco control advocates. Denormalization refers to attaching more stigma than usual to smoking behaviors, as the theory goes, with the hope of shaming smokers into quitting or never starting at all.
The Health Risks of Students Smoking
Educating young people about the health dangers of smoking has also effectively reduced teen smoking rates. Although the negative health consequences of smoking manifest later in life, cigarettes play a particularly harmful role in the health of a young person.
According to the World Health Organization, the immediate health effects of smoking on young people includes:
- Respiratory problems
- Nicotine addiction
- Higher prevalence of drug use
- Reduced lung growth
The long-term effects are much worse:
- Early signs of heart disease and stroke appear in adolescent smokers
- A teen smoker’s resting heart rate is two to three times faster than a typical teen’s heart
- Starting smoking early leads to a higher chance of developing lung cancer as an adult
The Other Risks of Adolescent Smoking
The adverse effects smoking has on a person’s skin, teeth, hair are well-known, among them:
- The premature appearance and development of wrinkles (the carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke deprives skin of oxygen, thereby creating wrinkles)
- Yellow, nicotine-stained teeth is another feature of a long-term smoking habit
- Thinning and graying hair is a result of toxic chemicals from smoke damaging the cells in hair follicles
Smoking is a habit that not only endangers the health and appearance of young people, but it also costs a lot of money to maintain. With their finances already strained by other things (college, books, cost of living), it makes no sense to continue smoking while living on a tight budget, as most college-aged kids do. Smoking adds to a student’s burden not only because of its cost but also because of the health-related expenses incurred by a smoking habit.
Other costs related to smoking include:
- Life/health insurance – smokers pay much higher premiums for coverage than non-smokers, almost as high as $1000 a year
- Medications/medical bills – smokers get sick more often and therefore have to spend more money on doctor’s visits, prescription drugs, which can lead to spending an extra $25/month
A New Day, A New Vape
The Monitoring the Future study that surveys high-school and college students around the country on drug and alcohol use found that in 2017: 27.9% of senior high school students tried a vaping device in the past year.
The jump in vaporizer use (for nicotine and marijuana products) among young people worries health experts since other studies have shown that vaping e-cigarettes is likely to lead to regular cigarette use.
One recent study found that:
“For those between the ages of 14-30, e-cigarette use in the past 30-days lead to a 23% higher chance of cigarette use”
The thinking goes that even though e-cigarettes as seen as an alternative to combustible cigarettes, young people will still gravitate to the latter. There is evidence to back-up this fear. Students are among the group with the highest smoking rates.
A SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) report showed that in 2013:
- 37% of young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 used a tobacco product
- 25.7% of adults over the age of 26 were the second highest group of tobacco users
Further study has shown, however, that college students who smoke do so on an irregular basis, rather than smoking every day.
- 17%-21% of young people surveyed reported being intermittent smokers from among a group of 990 college-age adults
- Smoke much less than regular smokers
- Are not nicotine-addicted
- Do not consider themselves as regular “smokers”
Except, while intermittent smokers smoke less, they do so over an extended period. Their tobacco use remains steady over this period, so they are still at risk of developing smoking-related health problems.
When asked, “what purpose does smoking serve for you?”, Kate, a 21-year-old designer from Seattle, said the following, “I think the only positive I get from it is that it’s calming and kind of levels me out. With that said, I do think there are much healthier ways to get calm and relax.” Kate is right; there are much healthier ways to relax and deal with stress.
Student’s lives are filled with daily stresses (school assignments, part-time jobs, financial worries, etc.), so cigarettes seem like an easy way to blow off some steam.
There are, like Kate said, other ways to deal with stress:
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet can give students energy, and improve their immune system; cooking a meal can also help students de-stress
- Regular exercise 30 minutes every day, or even just once a week, can markedly decrease stress levels
- College students are notoriously sleep-starved, so it is recommended that students sleep regularly or take small, 20-minute naps whenever they can
- Quitting smoking is another way to beat stress; nicotine inhibits serotonin-levels in the brain (a natural stress-killer) so not smoking helps the body fight off anxiety
Quitting Early and For Good
Smoking bans on college campuses are achieving their goals of reducing, even preventing, students from smoking. While college students do continue to smoke, they do so more in social situations and intermittently rather than as an everyday habit. College students who started smoking in high school may have started for various reasons. Education, public-smoking bans and the cost of smoking, however, may explain while fewer college-age people begin smoking.
Even though students may view cigarettes as a way to relax nerves and ease stress, college-life offers other ways to unwind. Quitting smoking is one way to bring down stress, as well as eating right and getting regular exercise.
College students are fully aware of the dangers of smoking, but since they are living through an exciting time in their lives, they have not entirely given up on all their bad habits. Nevertheless, the strict legislations and access to various studies and scientific research make it easier for young people to decide to quit smoking, now more than ever.