Smoking by Students Declines

Analysis by American Lung Association suggests that college policies could be strengthened to further discourage tobacco use.
September 8, 2008

College students are less likely to be smokers today than at any time since 1980, according to a report being released today by the American Lung Association.

Only 19.2 percent of students are smokers, according to the data, which come from 2006 surveys. As recently as 1999, 30.6 percent were smokers (defined as those who had smoked within the previous 30 days). While applauding the drop, the lung association said that smoking rates among students can easily zig-zag. In 1989, the rate dropped to 21.1 percent, only to rise rapidly over the next 10 years.

The most recent decline, the report says, can be attributed to higher prices for cigarettes (through higher taxes and costs passed along by tobacco companies as they paid steep fines to settle litigation), and more regulations barring smoking in certain public areas, including colleges.

The report mixes analysis of data on smoking rates with data on student attitudes and information about campus policies designed to discourage smoking.

Current smoking rates for college students are much lower than rates for 18- to 22-year olds who are not in college, of whom more than a third smoke.

Among college students who smoke, the study found:

  • Males are slightly more likely than females to be smokers (20.9 percent to 18.1 percent).
  • White students are more likely than minority students to be smokers. Black students are the least likely to be smokers.
  • About half of smokers are "social smokers," meaning that they smoke with others rather than alone.
  • Fraternity and sorority members are more likely to be smokers than are other students.
  • Many students report that they smoke as a way to deal with stress or depression.

The report suggests that colleges consider the use of "social norms" education to tackle a notable gap between student perceptions about the prevalence of smoking and the realities. The social norms approach -- much discussed among those focused on curbing alcohol abuse -- involves publicizing accurate information about how frequently students actually engage in a particular vice. When students learn that most students don't binge drink, the theory goes, they are less likely to do so.

Citing data from the American College Health Association, the report says that more than 80 percent of students report that their peers smoke, four times the reality, suggesting that more students would benefit from learning that only a minority of students actually smoke.

The report calls on colleges to take the following steps to further discourage tobacco use among students:

  • Bar tobacco use in all indoor and outdoor facilities, private offices and dormitories. (The American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation says that at least 131 colleges and universities are completely smoke-free, and that the number has been growing steadily.)
  • Ban tobacco advertising on campus or free distribution of cigarettes.
  • Offer "cessation therapies" for all students and employees who smoke, and enhance programs to discourage people from starting to smoke.
  • Refuse to accept research funds from the tobacco industry. While some public health schools and medical schools have adopted such policies, most colleges and universities have not -- and the American Association of University Professors has argued that such absolute bans violate academic freedom by taking away professors' rights to decide about the sources of support for their work.


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