Smoking Cigarettes at the University

Have you ever participated in a survey and then wondered what happened to all the data, wondered how your answers fit into everyone else’s answers, wondered about the results? For the past two years, the Center for Health & Wellbeing has conducted surveys on campus to discover if our smoking prevention campaigns are working – or whether or not you’ve even seen them on campus (typically these campaigns have featured the slogan, “Two out of three are smoke free”). We also want to get a sense for how many students smoke cigarettes, and what your general attitudes and behaviors are regarding tobacco. In November 2002, nearly 400 first and second year students participated in a random, anonymous phone survey about smoking. Here’s what that survey told us:Daily Smoking: “How many cigarettes do you currently smoke each day?” Before reading on, pause. Think about how many smokers you see each day. Is it a large number? What percentage of students do you think smoke at least one cigarette per day? The answer is 19%, which is below the national average for adults (about 23% of adults are current smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control). Of the student smokers we talked to, many indicated smoking very little, like one to three cigarettes per day. Just 4% of students said they smoke more than ten cigarettes per day. Eighty-one percent said that they don’t smoke cigarettes at all, at least not “each day.” In comparison, a Harvard survey in 2000 found that 71% of UVM students were smoke-free, so smoking might be declining at UVM (we’ll change our education campaign to: ‘4 out of 5 are smoke free’. It’s interesting to note the difference between how many smokers people think there are on campus versus the actual percentage of smokers. On average, the students we surveyed estimated that 44% of their fellow students smoke cigarettes on a daily basis–more than double the actual rate of 19%. A few people guessed as high as 90%. So there’s a perception that more people smoke than actually do. This sort of disparity between actual and perceived behavior is not uncommon (we see something similar in the perception of drinking rates on this and other campuses across the country). One problem with a disparity like this one is that people are more likely to behave a certain way-to speed on the freeway, for example-if they believe that “everybody does it.” “Common”can get confused with “normal,” and sometimes even with “good.” The disparity we’re talking about may actually make smoking more “socially acceptable” on campus. Would there be fewer smokers at UVM if this disparity didn’t exist? Maybe. It’s something to ponder, anyway. Reasons for Starting: Another question we asked in the survey was, “What do you think is the number one reason why college students begin smoking?” The most popular answer was “stress,” bringing in 23% of answers. Next was “to fit in or look cool” at 20%, and in a close third was “peer pressure at parties,” with 18%. A lot of students mentioned the social aspects of smoking as a contributing factor, and some even said smoking was a good way to meet people. Somehow it is easier to say, “Have you got a light?” than, “Hi, I feel like chatting with someone new and you seem like an interesting person.” We all understand this, but as health educators in the Center for Health &Wellbeing, we just wish tobacco wasn’t such a handy social facilitator. The Challenge of Quitting: We asked, “In your opinion, what is the largest challenge for a student who wants to quit smoking?” Thirty four percent of men and 28% of women answered, “Addiction.” Forty five percent of females and 33% of males said, “Being around friends who smoke.” We know from other surveys and from focus groups with students who smoke, that most smokers would like to quit – and most in fact plan to quit. But, of course, it’s very hard to quit and quit for good. Very few people quit on the first try. Why? Nicotine addiction is very powerful, for one thing. But the social aspects of smoking make it tough, even after the physical urge to smoke starts to fade. When asked why he started up again, one student at a focus group summed it up by laughing and saying, simply, ‘My stupid friends.’ If a lot of your friends are still smoking, it can be awfully hard not to bum a cigarette now and then. Do that a couple of times and you’ll be buying cigarettes before you know it. And the stress of college certainly doesn’t help. Some students who hope to quit tell us that they don’t even plan to try until they get out of college. But this sort of thing makes us wince. You want to quit? Don’t put it off. Give the Center for Health & Wellbeing a call at 656-0505 for support in quitting. Need a way to cope that doesn’t come with a filtered tip? Call the UVM Counseling Center at 656-3340 for information about managing your stress.What Else Did We Learn? The survey told us that more sophomores are smoke-free (84%) than first-year students (78%), a trend that we like to see. Also, 45% of sophomores believe that smoking is on the decline on campus-another good trend, and they seem to be right. Students have seen our smoking prevention materials all over campus, and forty-one percent said that they do a “good” job of attracting their attention (only 2% said they do an “excellent” job, so there’s room for improvement there). What do we take away from all of this? We know that many students overestimate the number of smokers at UVM, and this misperception may make smoking more acceptable and therefore more common. We know that students who do smoke are concerned about their addiction to nicotine and that many students feel like the social culture of smoking is a barrier to quitting. If you do smoke, think about quitting. And if you want to quit, ask for help. There’s a toll-free “hotline” run by the American Cancer Society to help anyone in Vermont quit. Call 877-YES-QUIT. The Center for Health & Wellbeing can also help. Check out, and call Natasha Thompson, Student Health Educator, at 656-0505 for information about tobacco, smoking, and support for smokers who want to quit. Quitting isn’t easy, but it’s not going to get any easier in the future. Do it now!