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New study review: Uncovering answers about “social smoking” in college and targeted anti-smoking campaigns


Daniella Matthews-Trigg

Program Associate

New study about “social smoking” in college

A fascinating new study titled, “Occasional smoking in college: Who, What, When and Why?  By Amy E. Brown, Matthew Carpenter, and Erin Sutfin, looks at the prevalent phenomenon on college campuses of “social smoking” at parties and while drinking. I was on a call last week where Matthew Carpenter and Erin Sutfin spoke about their study and the tobacco control implications they had found.

First, some interesting stats and findings from the report:

  • The mean age for smoking initiation in the US is 17.5
  • The mean age for initiation of DAILY smoking is 20.7
  •  65% of college tobacco users smoke occasionally
  •  The belief that occasional smoking holds no health risks
  •  Quit intention was based on future milestones ( “I’ll quit when I graduate” or “when I have kids I won’t smoke anymore”)
  •  Smoked for emotional and social reasons

But, what I found most interesting was the intentional avoidance of regular smoking. The students interviewed did not identify as smokers and found social smoking or smoking when drinking socially acceptable versus “sober smoking”, which was “gross” and unacceptable.

The study concludes with some interesting findings including the stigmatization of being a smoker and the widespread beliefs by the students that there is no harm in occasional smoking and that they will be able to quit whenever they decide to.

The implications of these results brought up in the discussion of the study were that, because college students don’t identify as smokers, they fall through tobacco cessation cracks.  They suggest that instead of asking “are you a smoker?”, the question asked should be “how many cigarettes have you smoked in the last month?”. Also, because college students and adolescents have trouble seeing long-term consequences, focusing on the immediate health risks (wrinkles, yellow teeth, etc.) is more effective. They also stressed that although occasional smoking is not safe by any means, the biggest risk is progression to chronic smoking, and that the “trajectory of smoking is modifiable”. Additionally, college smokers present a unique, captive population in that they are often living in one area for four years, so there are lots of possibilities for interventions.

And, focusing on the internal struggle and tension between fitting in with social smoking and the desire to not be seen as a “smoker” may be the key to the most successful smoking interventions on college campuses.

This, to me, speaks to the importance of targeted anti-smoking campaigns.

College students are a particular population with specific views and beliefs about smoking.

As an example of an excellent campaign that targets college students, click here (sorry the images are so small, but it was too good to pass up!) The front of the cards have statements such as ” I’m not a smoker, I only smoke at parties” and “I’m not addicted to tobacco, I only smoke when I’m stressed”. The back counters these statements with a few poignant bullet points that focus on the belief that social smoking is not addictive or harmful.

The LGB and T communities are similar in their needs for targeted campaigns that identify the community’s specific beliefs and views about smoking and counters them.

At the Network we want to know what kind of targeted campaigns you’re working on, and why it’s working (or not working!) or tell us about a targeted campaign that you felt was particularly effective for your work.

Keep up all the good work, keep us in the loop and happy holidays!

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