Both the facts and the manner of their presentation sounded especially daunting. In a markedly grave tone of voice, University Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper told the University Board of Regents a surprising new statistic: Entering their first year first year of college, about three percent of University students smoke cigarettes. After their first year, that number jumps to 25 percent.
Although the statistics were unusual – the Dean of the School of Public Health Kenneth Warner called them into question, saying, “There’s no way that’s accurate” – the regents’ shocked response was not. For a number of years, smoking has remained a dominant health issue in the country, garnering much attention due to well-organized campaign against it. The days of high school smoking lounges have given way to an age of Nicorette patches and widespread education campaigns. Smoking remains a legitimate and pressing health concern, but over the past several decades, anti-tobacco activists have been successful in changing the public’s perception of smoking.
The possibly erroneous statistics Royster cited could be interpreted as a sign that University Health Services needs to put more efforts toward preventing tobacco use. But what may be more telling is the level of concern these statistics raised. Few other public health campaigns have been as successful at convincing the general public that smoking is more than just a bad habit.
Public health activists can learn from the successful efforts to fight tobacco use. Mental health issues, for example, have remained stigmatized for years, and efforts have only just begun to increase the public’s awareness and understanding.
Smoking on campus may be a real problem and should be treated as such. However, the celebrity status tobacco use receives can also serve as an important example toward changing public perception on other, less publicized health concerns.