While fewer college students than ever are addicted to cigarettes, there’s still cause for concern. College-aged students use more tobacco products than any other age group. They’re getting tobacco in new forms, including cigars and hookahs in addition to cigarettes. And those who claim they’re nonsmokers but smoke occasionally still put themselves at increased risk of diseases and eventual addiction.
Smoking among college students had remained at a fairly steady level for decades: between 18 and 19 percent from 1980 to 1999, according to a survey by Monitoring the Future. But from 2000 to 2012, the proportion of college students who report smoking daily fell from 18 percent to 5 percent. Other trends have also changed over time: Whereas college women were more likely to be smokers than men from 1980 to 1992, that trend has reversed. As of 2012, 17 percent of male college students reported smoking in the past 10 days, compared to 10 percent of female college students.
While college students themselves tend to smoke fewer cigarettes than before, Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 -- including those who don't attend college -- smoke more than any other age group, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. About 38 percent of Americans in this age group use tobacco, compared to 8.6 percent for those between the ages of 12 and 17, and 27 percent for those 26 and older. Their usage isn’t limited to cigarettes. Among college-age Americans in 2012, 31.8 percent used cigarettes in the past month, 10.7 percent used cigars, 5.5 percent used smokeless tobacco and 1.8 percent used pipe tobacco.
Hookah usage among college students is on the rise, with studies in 2012 and 2013 estimating that in the past year between 22 and 40 percent of American college students had tried it at least once, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Occasional hookah users on campus may feel it’s not as dangerous as smoking cigarettes, but the charcoal used to heat a hookah contains carbon monoxide, and a hourlong hookah session can call for as many as 200 puffs, well more than the 20 puffs from an average cigarette. The smoke from a hookah contains addictive nicotine and the same carcinogens as cigarette smoke.
"Nonsmokers" Who Smoke
How is it that about 5 percent of college students consider themselves smokers if between 22 and 40 percent have smoked a hookah at least once in the past year? It depends on how people define being a "smoker." Many college students use tobacco on occasion and yet still consider themselves nonsmokers. For example, according to a 2007 study in "Nicotine and Tobacco Research," among college students who admitted to using tobacco on occasion -- five days or fewer per month -- 70.5 percent also consider themselves "nonsmokers." Smoking even a few days a month can lead to shortness of breath and coughing, and smoking just a few cigarettes a day increases the risk for heart disease, cancer and addiction, according to the American Cancer Society.
- Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results of Drug Use, 1975-2012
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: National Survey on Drug Use and Health
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Hookahs
- Nicotine and Tobacco Research: Smoking but not Smokers: Identity Among College Students Who Smoke Cigarettes, 2007
- American Cancer Society: Light Smoking as Risky as a Pack a Day?
- U.S. Surgeon General’s Report 2014: Chapter 13 -- Patterns of Tobacco Use Among U.S. Youth, Young Adults, and Adults