In a grave voice, University Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper presented a shocking pair of statistics to the University Board of Regents at its meeting last month.
About 3 percent of incoming freshmen reported smoking cigarettes when they came to the University, Harper said.
But by the end of freshman year, the number of smokers had leaped to an eye-widening 25 percent, she said.
After Harper read the numbers, a murmur rose in the room among both the audience and the regents, who seemed stunned by the statistics.
University officials link the dramatic increase to a variety of causes.
Robert Winfield, director of the University Health Service, said students may begin smoking during their freshman year as a result of increased alcohol consumption a, the stress of being away from home, heightened social pressures and late nights that are part of the college lifestyle.
“When I talk to smokers about smoking they usually say they smoke because it’s a habit, they use it to take breaks, and they do it socially,” Winfield said.
Malinda Matney, senior research associate for the division of student affairs, agreed that the increased alcohol consumption of students transitioning from high school to college may be a factor.
“Oftentimes smoking behavior travels with alcohol behavior,” Matney said
Carol Tucker, an educator for UHS, said “college is a time when people experiment,” speculating that most people who smoke in college do so socially and are not heavy smokers.
“Unfortunately, some become addicted,” she said.
There is some dispute over the accuracy of the numbers presented to the regents.
Kenneth Warner, dean of the School of Public Health, has done significant research on smoking trends and said, based on other surveys, that 3 percent is far too low to be correct.
“There’s no way that’s accurate,” he said, adding that he suspects freshmen taking the surveys may have been reluctant to report tobacco use.
There is also a discrepancy between dates of the two surveys Harper used.
The 3 percent figure likely came from the University’s annual student life survey on freshmen who entered the University in 2004 – this year’s sophomore class, Matney said. The 25 percent figure likely came from a University survey conducted among freshmen who entered in 2001 at the end of their first – last year’s senior class.
Harper did not return phone calls or e-mails asking for clarification.
A pair of surveys the University took in 2001 suggests the dramatic increase from Harper’s report holds up to scrutiny.
Although only 4.7 percent of 2001’s incoming freshman said they had smoked within the last year, a later survey of the same class found that 25 percent had lit up by the end of their freshman year.
Everyone agrees that whatever the percentage increase in smokers in that critical first year at the University, students picking up the habit in their first year is a problem.
Winfield said UHS encourages students to stop smoking, but reducing students’ use of tobacco also takes preventative measures, such as the prohibition of smoking in all residence halls that was implemented in 2003.
Warner believes this policy effective in reducing the number of students who smoke, citing workplace research that links the implementation of smoke-free policies with increased numbers of employees who quit.
UHS offers “quit kits” for students interested in kicking the habit. Kits include information on the dangers of smoking, a list of local quit programs and discount coupons for nicotine substitute products at the UHS pharmacy.
The University also runs an annual “Smokeout” campaign in conjunction with University Students Against Cancer. Volunteers distribute information packages and provide visual aides on the Diag to encourage smoking cessation.
Warner said there is no question that the University could influence students’ decisions to permanently ditch their lighters.
Others question whether the University’s programs could lure students away from their nicotine.
Mike Reid, a freshman in the School of Nursing, speculated that programs are ineffective because “people who smoke wouldn’t make an effort to go.”
Reid said hearing and becoming aware of the dangers of smoking “doesn’t entice people to quit because, especially with addiction, it’s something they have to want to do.”
Tucker also acknowledged the limited ability of the University to stop students from smoking
“We certainly help to promote smoking cessation as much as possible but many students are at a stage of life where they don’t view themselves as smokers and therefore are not really interested in support for quitting,” she said.