Student smokers on the rise at U

by Craig Gustafson

Since 1992, the rate of tobacco use among first-year University students increased 150 percent, a Boynton Health Service study revealed Wednesday.
Boynton’s report paints a dismal picture of tobacco use on campus: Forty percent of 18- to 24-year-olds at the University use tobacco — far more than the 25 percent of U.S. adults who use tobacco and slightly more than the national average among college students.
Cigarettes account for the majority of tobacco use, while cigars and smokeless tobacco comprise smaller but significant percentages.
“(The study) does not show a good picture of University students,” said Boynton director Ed Ehlinger.
Boynton timed the release of the report with Minnesota’s “Don’t Smoke Day” and a nationwide event called the Great American Smokeout. The goal of both events is to get smokers to kick their habit for a day and possibly for good.
Ehlinger and other smoking opponents clearly have their work cut out, especially at the University.
The most startling fact disclosed by the study was that more than 50 percent of current tobacco users first tried tobacco after the age of 18, showing that many more people pick up the habit in college than previously thought.
And despite Minnesota’s ranking as the healthiest state in the nation for the fourth consecutive year by the United Health Group, University officials still struggle to successfully promote a smokeless campus.
“We know students are interested in cessation,” Ehlinger said. To help them along, Ehlinger and other Boynton health staff members periodically offer free nicotine patches — which are readily scooped up — to anyone with a U Card.
To formulate their own way of reducing people’s tobacco habits, the University is spending $9 million in grants to look at nicotine levels in smokers’ bloodstreams and ways to reduce those levels.
“It’s now clear that a large number of people cannot stop,” said Stephen Hecht, a University cancer researcher who will head the nicotine study. “Our goal is to reduce the amount a person smokes.”
But despite the University’s sizable investments into research and campaigns, critics question the seriousness of the school’s anti-smoking bent since it continues to allow the sale of tobacco products in campus stores. After Monday’s closing of Coffman Union, only the St. Paul Student Center and the West Bank Skyway Store sell cigarettes.
“Having (tobacco) on campus doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Ehlinger said. But among those young people who use tobacco, it apparently does make sense.
When Ehlinger went out and talked to several college-age women to find out why they smoke, they told him that female smokers are considered “high class,” while male smokers are thought of as “low class.”
The difference between the genders is backed up by the Boynton study, which concludes that women smoke more frequently than men.
“We need to learn from the social marketing campaign of tobacco companies to show students that not smoking is cool,” Ehlinger said.

Craig Gustafson welcomes comments at [email protected].