Press Releases

1998 Releases

Harvard Study Finds 28% More College Students Smoking in 1997 Compared to 1993

For immediate release: November 17, 1998

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A new study finds that smoking rose by 28 percent--from 22 percent to 28 percent--on college campuses between 1993 and 1997. The study is reported in the November 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, and was conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health. It finds increased smoking rates in all student groups, regardless of age, sex, year in school, race, and ethnicity. The 28 percent rise is in current smokers--those who smoked during the 30 days prior to the survey.

The study, conducted under a grant from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is based on the responses from a nationally representative sample of 14,521 college students surveyed in 1997, which were compared to those of 15,103 students surveyed in 1993. It involves students at 116 colleges in 39 states. Increased smoking rates were found in all types of colleges: public and private, residential and commuter, and in schools with small and large enrollments and those at all levels of academic competitiveness. Smoking is increasing faster in public schools than in private schools, and in schools located in the North Central region of the country.

"We have found a dramatic rise in smoking among all college students and at all types of colleges," said Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., Principal Investigator of the study and Director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "In fact, smoking rates rose at 99 out of the 116 schools surveyed. College students and people with college educations have traditionally smoked at lower levels than people not attending college. This rise in smoking among the most highly educated youth in America should be a wake-up call about the problem of smoking at all levels of society. These students could contribute to much higher adult smoking rates in the future with severe consequences in terms of disease."

Though increases were seen among all student groups and at all kinds of colleges, as in 1993, certain groups of students surveyed in 1997 had lower smoking rates than others. Asian, African-American, and Hispanic students had lower smoking rates than whites. Older students--seniors and fifth year students--registered lower smoking prevalence than freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. Certain colleges--including commuter schools (defined as schools where 90 percent or more of the students live off campus) and highly competitive schools (based on ACT and SAT scores and percent of applicants accepted)--also had lower smoking prevalence.

According to the authors, the 1997 college-level smoking rate increases appear to be a consequence of the rise in adolescent smoking that occurred in the 1990s. "The college students surveyed in 1997 were high school seniors between 1993 and 1996, during which time high school seniors' smoking prevalence rates rose progressively following a decade of stability," said Wechsler. "One of the lessons learned here is that we must redouble our efforts to make sure young people--particularly those under the age of 18--don't take up smoking in the first place, which they are doing now in larger numbers. After all, most adult smokers began at or before the age of 18."

Though many students took up smoking in high school, over one quarter of the students reported starting to smoke regularly in college. Eleven percent of the students began to smoke at or after the age of 19, at a time when nearly all are presumably in college. The study finds that half of all college smokers tried to quit in the previous year. In comparison, only 30 percent of all adult smokers report attempting to quit in the previous year.

"The college years appear to be a time of transition in smoking behavior among young people," said Nancy Rigotti, M.D., Director of Tobacco Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and co-author of the study.

"During this time, many young people are starting to smoke regularly while many others are trying to quit. College offers a window of opportunity to intervene with strong cessation programs to prevent transition from occasional to regular, full-scale nicotine dependent smoking and a time to teach occasional and regular smokers how and why to quit."

"Such interventions are more likely to be successful if they are paired with environmental and policy changes that discourage tobacco use," continued Rigotti. "Colleges must expand smoke-free areas and make sure that dormitories and other shared living quarters are smoke-free. Smoke-free areas not only eliminate second-hand smoke; they limit the visibility and accessibility of cigarettes around those who are trying to quit or are still only occasional smokers. They may also serve to limit the number of cigarettes smoked. Increasing the price of cigarettes is another approach that could deter college smoking since price hikes of cigarettes have been found to be a major factor in youth smoking habits."

Joining Drs. Wechsler and Rigotti as study authors are Jeana Gledhill-Hoyt, M.P.H. (Harvard School of Public Health) and Hang Lee, Ph.D. (University of California, Los Angeles).

The Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study website address is: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu