Press Releases

2001 Releases

Students Entering College as Nonsmokers 40 Percent Less Likely to Take Up Smoking When They Live in Smoke-Free Dorms

For immediate release: March 22, 2001

BOSTON, MA – College students who live in smoke-free dorms are 40 percent less likely to take up smoking than their counterparts who live in unrestricted housing, according to a new study being released today by the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas). A second study on college smoking finds that, although 81 percent of colleges prohibit smoking in all public areas, only 27 percent prohibit smoking in students’ dormitories. That same study finds that 40 percent of colleges do not offer smoking cessation programs to help students who want to quit.

The first study appears in the March 2001 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and is based on a nationally representative sample of college students at U.S. four-year colleges surveyed in the spring of 1999. That study examined the smoking behavior of 4,495 students at 101 schools offering smoke-free housing options. The second study, appearing in the March 2001 issue of the Journal of American College Health, surveyed health center directors at 604, four-year U.S. colleges and universities. This research was supported by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has just launched a substance abuse resource center at http://substanceabuse.rwjf.org.

"These findings suggest that smoke-free dorms may help incoming college students who have not yet taken up smoking avoid tobacco addiction during college," said Henry Wechsler, PhD, Principal Investigator of both studies and Director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "While the difference in smoking rates may be, in part, due to self-selection by students into smoke-free housing, these residences appear to be protective. They also prevent nonsmokers from being exposed to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke and the risk of dormitory fires. All in all, smoke-free residences are a win-win situation." 

"The college years are a time of transition in smoking behavior of young people because many are experimenting with tobacco, others are starting to smoke regularly, and still others are trying to quit," said Nancy Rigotti, MD, Director of Tobacco Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School.

At the same time, college students are also the youngest legal targets for tobacco marketing, making up some 5.3 million young adults, said Wechsler. "Given the vulnerability of college students to this very addictive substance and the negative health effects of secondhand smoke, colleges should seriously consider making all dorms smoke-free. At a minimum, colleges should offer enough smoke-free dorms for all those who are requesting them, which is not the case right now." Currently, according to the researchers, 44 percent of students live in smoke-free dorms, while another 29 percent do not live in them, but would like to.

Smoke-free dorms may serve as a smoking prevention tool by limiting the opportunity and time for smoking and reducing the influence of smokers on their nonsmoking peers, according to the researchers. 

The study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the relationship of type of residence to smoking status differed according to students’ smoking histories. Among students who were not regular smokers before age 19, current cigarette use was significantly lower for those living in smoke-free housing (10 percent) than for those in unrestricted housing (16.9 percent). Among students who had smoked regularly before age 19, there was no difference in current cigarette use by housing type. The lower rate of current cigarette use in smoke-free housing compared to unrestricted housing was true for almost all types of colleges and for most types of students.

A previous study (released in August 2000) showed that rates of current (30-day) smoking among college students jumped by more than one-fourth between 1993 and 1997 (from 22 percent to 28 percent), and remained at the higher level in 1999. This is a significant shift as, in the past, college students have been relatively strong resistors of involvement with tobacco. Much of the recent rise is probably due to an earlier rise in tobacco use among high school and middle school students. "It may also reflect newer tobacco industry marketing efforts that target young adults, aged 18 to 24," write the researchers in the first new study. Nearly half (46 percent) of college students report having used tobacco products in the previous year. 

"College students experiment with all types of tobacco products, and this can easily lead to addiction," said Rigotti. 

But, many colleges offer no cessation programs to students who are interested in quitting, and most college programs that are offered still lack key elements of effective adult cessation programs, according to the researchers. For example, the study in the Journal of American College Health finds that only 31 percent of schools with cessation programs offer "individualized support;" only 25 percent offer counseling, screening, and assessment by a physician or health professional; and only 19 percent offer FDA-approved cessation products. 

"What we know from public health service guidelines published in 2000 is that the components of effective cessation treatment include both behavioral counseling and pharmacological therapy and that a combination of the two are best," said Rigotti. "Based on this study, it is safe to say that colleges are not even providing what is considered ‘the state of the art’ for adult cessation programs."

However, the researchers say that not much is known about exactly what types of cessation programs will work in young adults. "College students are at an intersection between childhood and adulthood and, therefore, may need more tailored cessation programs," said Rigotti. "In the absence of better data, it certainly makes sense for colleges to adapt and provide students with what we know works in adults."

But, such programs would need to be marketed effectively, according to the researchers. As of now, even where colleges did offer smoking cessation programs, there was little student demand for those programs, according to the study in the Journal of American College Health. Specifically, 80 percent of schools with programs reported no waiting lists for the programs offered, and six percent reported discontinuing smoking cessation programs due to lack of student demand. 

"There is a great need for efforts to increase the success rate of the substantial number of smokers who are already trying to quit," said Rigotti. Previous research has shown that half of college student smokers had tried to quit smoking in the previous year. "Despite this, students do not appear to be using existing college resources to do so. These efforts are more likely to be successful if they are paired with environmental and policy changes, such as smoke-free dorms." 

The findings released today are available in two articles: "Cigarette Use by College Students in Smoke-Free Housing: Results of a National Study" by Henry Wechsler, PhD, Jae Eun Lee, DrPH, Nancy A. Rigotti, MD, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, March 2001 (Volume 20, Issue 3).

"College Smoking Policies and Smoking Cessation Programs: Results of a Survey of College Health Directors" by Henry Wechsler, PhD, Kathleen Kelley, MBA, Mark Seibring, BA/BS, Meichun Kuo, ScD, and Nancy A. Rigotti, MD, Journal of American College Health, March 2001 (Volume 49, Issue 5).

The Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS) is an ongoing survey of more than 14,000 students at 140 four-year colleges in 40 states. The study examines high-risk behaviors among college students, such as heavy episodic or binge drinking, smoking, illicit drug use, and other behavioral, social, and health problems confronting today’s American college students. 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (http://www.rwjf.org), based in Princeton, New Jersey, is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care.

Editor’s Note: A video news release, featuring interviews with the researchers, students, and tobacco control spokespeople, in addition to b-roll of college students smoking and examples of tobacco marketing aimed at college-aged consumers, is available to support this story.


For further information, please contact:

Ellen Wilson or Amy Ekola, (301) 652-1558
Robin Herman 617-432-4752