High rates of tobacco use among college students run counter to downward trends in the general population. Here are some of the alarming truths about college tobacco use.


General Trends:

  • Estimates vary, but approximately 30.0% of college students are current tobacco users, defined as those who have used a tobacco product in the past 30 days.
    • The 1999 Harvard College Alcohol Study found that 32.9% of college students had used tobacco during the past 30 days (Rigotti, 2000).
    • According to the 1999 Harvard College Alcohol Study nearly half of college students (45.7%) used a tobacco product in the last year (Rigotti, 2000).
  • College smoking rates rose dramatically through the 1990s.
    • The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s “Monitoring the Future” survey found that the number of college students who reported smoking in the past 30 days rose by one-third, from 23.0% in 1991 up to 31.0% in 1999. College students who reported daily smoking rose by 40.0%, from 14.0% in 1991 to 19.0% in 1999 (Johnston, 2002).
    • The Harvard College Alcohol study reported an increase of 27.8% in the number of college students who smoked during the past 30 days between 1993 (22.0%) and 1997 (28.0%) (Wechsler, 1998).
  • Many people start to smoke in college. Almost 40% of college students either began smoking (11.0%) or became regular smokers (28.0%) after starting college (Rigotti, 2000).
  • Of the over 70.0% of college students who have ever tried smoking (Rigotti, 2000, and CDC, 1997) 41.5% continue on to become regular smokers (Everett, 1999).
  • Historically, college students have had lower smoking rates than people the same age who are not in college, but the gap is narrowing. It shrunk from 20.0% in 1980 to 10.0% by 1999 (Halperin, 2002).

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Cigar and Smokeless Tobacco Use:

  • Although cigarette smoking constitutes the majority of college tobacco use on campuses, other forms of tobacco are also a cause for concern.
  • Cigar use has risen dramatically among college-aged youth. Young adults aged 18-25 are more than twice as likely to report cigar smoking in the past month than teenagers and adults over 26 (NHSDA, 2001).
  • Almost one-half (44.0%) of college students have reported ever smoking a cigar, and one study found that 20.0% of college students reported cigar use in the past 30 days (Jamner, 1999).
  • A single cigar often contains more nicotine than an entire pack of cigarettes (Jamner, 1999, and NCI, 2000).
  • Smoking just one to two cigars a day doubles the risk for oral and esophageal cancer (NCI, 2000).
  • Cigar smoking is more common among underclassmen, and the number of women in college who are smoking cigars is rapidly rising (Rigotti, 2000).
  • Smokeless tobacco use rates are about 3.7% among college students (Rigotti, 2000). There is some indication that they are increasing among young people in general (NCI, 2003).
  • Smokeless tobacco is potent. One “dip” delivers the same amount of nicotine as three to four cigarettes and stays in the bloodstream longer. Only eight to ten chews or dips of smokeless tobacco in a day contains the same amount of nicotine as 30-40 cigarettes (OCF).
  • Smokeless tobacco is a “gateway” substance for cigarette smoking, alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs (CDC, 7/2003).
  • Smokeless tobacco contains 28 known cancer-causing substances (NCI, 2003).
  • Smokeless tobacco is associated with cancers of the oral cavity (lips, tongue, cheeks, gums, floor/roof of mouth), oral leukoplakia (white mouth sores that can become cancerous), gum disease and possible heart disease, diabetes and reproductive problems (NCI, 2003).

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Social Smokers:

  • One of the greatest challenges on the college tobacco landscape is the growing number of “social smokers.” Social smokers usually smoke only while hanging out with friends, drinking, or partying.
  • The CDC reports a nationwide increase “some day smokers,” who report that they smoke only on some days. Nationally, 24.0% of the adult population identifies as a “some day smoker.” Among 18-24 year olds, 28.7% report being “some day smokers,” a higher prevalence than any other age group. When broken down by education level, those with a college education reported the highest prevalence of someday smoking (31.7%) (CDC, 4/2003).
  • The tobacco industry works hard to turn social or “some day” college smokers into regular smokers. As one Phillip Morris document notes, “significant choice moments in cigarette smoking tend to coincide with critical transition stages in life.” Tobacco marketers have implemented strategies designed to increase smoking frequency among college students who are social smokers (Ling, 2002).
  • Social smokers often do not consider themselves smokers, so there is little research on this group. One small survey conducted by the American Legacy Foundation found that 32.0% of smokers interviewed only smoked when with friends or in a social setting such as a bar or club. They reported reasons for social smoking such as “It goes well with drinking. I like the look and feel of it” and “I was already sucking in smoke — my friends and roommates smoke” (ALF, 2002).

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