The scent of smoke spreads across campus, concentrating in areas near the Academic Center, Gelman Library and the sidewalk in front of the Marvin Center. Hordes of coeds congregate outside their residence halls on the benches and under awnings to take a quick break to light up.
Despite the fact that only 20 percent of U.S. residents over the age of 18 are smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control, most students pass at least one smoker on a walk through campus. According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, 29 percent of college students smoked in 1999, an increase of 28 percent in six years.
Many aspects of collegiate life make it conducive to start smoking or to smoke more often. Newly-found freedom from parental control, increased opportunities for alcohol consumption and the stress of academic life can all lead students to light up.
“College, for many people, is very stressful,” said John F. Banzhaf, GW professor of law and founder of the Action on Smoking and Health, a legal action group for the anti-smoking campaign. “Many people think of smoking or use smoking to handle stress.”
Banzhaf noted that some people might think smoking helps them concentrate.
“College is stressful, and smoking makes you less stressed out,” said junior Ryan Anderson, who began smoking in high school.
However, smoking due to stress often backfires, Banzhaf said.
“Once you start smoking, the thing that makes you stressed is the lack of nicotine,” he said.
The social aspects of smoking are another cause of increased smoking in college. The act of smoking creates a bond between two strangers because it gives them something they have in common before even speaking to each other. Asking for a light or bumming a cigarette can be used as a tool for conversation in a club or a bar.
“Smoking tends to be far more prevalent in places where alcohol is consumed,” Banzhaf said. “Many people say that they smoke to be sociable.”
Junior Carrie Quinlan agrees that many people smoke to be social. Although she has quit a few times since she started smoking in high school, she said that her smoking “is totally dependent upon (her) stress level and how often (she) goes out.”
“I know a lot of people smoke because when they drink, it gets them drunk faster,” junior Alexandra Sabini said. She also mentioned she smoked a lot more her freshman year because all of her friends smoked.
Anderson also said that he started smoking “because it made other drugs more fun.”
Being away from home and out from under parental surveillance also attracts many people to the habit. Some people start because of their newfound freedom, Banzhaf said.
Other people treat it as an indicator of their emerging adulthood. Freshman Tom Consroe said going away to college is the perfect time to start smoking or to continue smoking without the fear of getting caught.
“Teenagers have finally gotten away from their parents and they can do stuff they would previously get in trouble for,” he said.
Weight is also a motivating force that drives some people to smoke.
“Far more females than males smoke because they think that it will help make them slim,” Banzhaf said.
Most students interviewed said they smoke light cigarettes rather than regular cigarettes; not because they think they are healthier, but out of personal preference.
“It’s more what you can actually handle smoking,” Sabini, said. She also mentioned that she thinks regular cigarettes are too harsh. Anderson, who also smokes light cigarettes, said he does so because they taste better.
Banzhaf said light cigarettes could actually be more harmful than regular cigarettes because smokers may smoke more of them to keep a steady amount of nicotine in their bodies.
“Most smokers are addicted to nicotine and (they) tend to smoke to keep nicotine in their bodies,” he said. To get the same amount of nicotine from a light cigarette, smokers will actually end up getting more tar and carbon monoxide than if they had just smoked regular cigarettes to begin with. Banzhaf said turning to light cigarettes is not a valid method with which to quit smoking. He also said that people might quit if the perceived “safer” option of light cigarettes didn’t exist.
“You’re seduced into believing there is another option,” he said, noting that light cigarettes are an empty promise that does not provide a safer option for smokers.
Banzhaf also said that most smokers can intellectually grasp the idea that smoking hurts them but continue to smoke anyway.
“It’s very difficult to intellectually accept the idea that odds are, smoking has a 50/50 chance to kill you,” Banzhaf said, noting that many people will grasp onto any idea, whether it is their own immortality or the idea that light cigarettes are actually healthier, to keep from thinking that it is a harmful habit.
Senior Julie Terbrock, who started smoking cigarettes the summer before her freshman year of college, said she hasn’t really had a reason to quit yet.
“I always think I’ll be able to stop,” she said. “I always say I’m going to quit further down the road.”
Sabini, however, said she is in the process of quitting and has cut back from smoking a pack to between five and 10 cigarettes a day.
“It’s getting too expensive and my friends are always on my case about it,” she said.
-David Kenner contributed to this report.