College Smokers Stay Smokers

Few College Students Stop Smoking Years Later

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on April 16, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

April 16, 2004 -- More than 90% of college students who smoke daily and nearly 50% of occasional college smokers continue smoking at least four years longer, according to a new study.

Researchers say that despite the fact that smoking rates have climbed among college students in recent years, few studies have looked at smoking behaviors among this group of young adults.

Recent studies have shown that smoking rates are surprisingly high among college students with about 30% having reported smoking a cigarette in the last 30 days. In contrast, older adults with higher educational status are less likely to smoke than those who didn't attend college.

College Smoking Habits Die Hard

In this study, which appears in the March issue of Health Psychology, researchers looked at smoking prevalence and factors that affected smoking behavior in a group of 550 college students during a period of four years. About 30% of the participants were freshmen or sophomore students.

Researchers found that 90% of the students who smoked daily at the start of the study continued to smoke four years later, and half of those who smoked occasionally did the same. Only 13% of daily smokers quit smoking by the end of the study.

But the study also showed that the smoking behavior of college smokers was generally more flexible than among other groups of smokers. For example, 28% of daily college smokers cut back on the number of cigarettes they smoked per day but did not quit.

"We also found that some college smokers did move between categories --14% of occasional smokers became daily smokers, and 11% of nonsmokers took up smoking," says researcher Michael Fiore, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention, in a news release. He says progression from occasional smoking to daily smoking seemed to be gender-related, with more males than females making the switch to becoming more avid smokers.

Researchers say those findings show that college smokers may be a prime target for smoking cessation and tobacco control efforts. The strongest factor that predicted smoking behaviors was the student's expectations about smoking. Those who believed that smoking helped them cope or had a beneficial emotional effect were more likely to continue smoking.

"Helping students to develop realistic expectations about smoking and to find other ways to cope with negative feelings may be helpful in reducing dependence upon smoking," says Fiore. "This is critical since we know that half of those who become daily lifetime smokers will be killed prematurely by a disease directly caused by their smoking."

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SOURCES: Wetter, D. Health Psychology, March 2004; vol 23: pp 168-177. News release, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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