Work Explores Social Smoking on College Campuses

A University of Arizona anthropologist has written a book exploring the culture of smoking on college campuses.

While adult smoking rates have declined dramatically in the U.S. over the past 40 years, young adults ages 18 to 24 continue to smoke more than any other age group, Mimi Nichter writes in "Lighting Up: The Rise of Social Smoking on College Campuses."

In interviews with hundreds of college students conducted over a 10-year period on two college campuses, Nichter set out to discover why young people continue to light up, despite widespread knowledge of the health risks of smoking.

"About 20 percent of smokers initiate smoking in college, and the highest prevalence of smoking is among young adults," said Nichter, a professor in the UA School of Anthropology with joint faculty appointments in public health and family and consumer sciences.

"There are many surveys done continually on smoking, yet there are few studies that look at the social utility and meaning of smoking to young people and how they talk about smoking," Nichter said. "I thought it was important to tell the stories of people who smoke and their experience and feelings about smoking, and how they may fall into addiction."

Nichter looks specifically at the trend of "social smoking" on college campuses, which she also refers to as "weekend smoking" or "party smoking."

While a pack-a-day style of smoking is not common as it once was, social smoking is prevalent at colleges, Nichter said.

These types of smokers tend to smoke occasionally — often while drinking alcohol at parties or other social gatherings. Despite their habit, they usually do not consider themselves smokers, Nichter said. "I smoke but I'm not really a smoker" was a common mantra expressed by those she interviewed. In fact, many students who smoked socially expressed disgust with the smoking habit because of the stigma associated with it.

"If you ask a party smoker on a survey, 'Do you consider yourself a smoker?' they’ll say no," Nichter said. "Over 50 percent of people who do smoke at some level don't consider themselves smokers."

This finding calls into question some of what we know from survey data about smoking on college campuses, Nichter said.

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