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College’s party atmosphere inflates number of smokers

Almost one-third of the nation's college students have turned to tobacco in the past year, says a report out today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That finding and others are part of a JAMA issue devoted to tobacco issues and will be conveyed at this week's 11th World Conference on Tobacco OR Health in Chicago. Other studies have focused on college students' cigarette use, but researchers say this is the first to look into cigar use as well.

Researchers studied the results of the 2009 Harvard College Alcohol Survey, which focused not only on alcohol but on cigarette, cigar, smokeless tobacco and pipe use at 119 colleges.

Of the more than 14,000 students who responded:

  • 60% said they had tried a tobacco product at least once in their lives.
  • 42.7% said they had used tobacco within the past year.
  • 30.9% said they had used a tobacco product within the past month.

Researchers found that students are more likely to use tobacco if they value social life more than academics, religion or athletics or if they engage in risky behavior such as having multiple sex partners or binge drinking.

''It's a gross generalization, but students who are majoring in partying are those most likely to smoke,'' says lead researcher Nancy Rigotti, the director of Tobacco Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

The study also found that:

  • 34% said they had smoked a cigar at least once in their lives.
  • 20% had smoked a cigar within the past year.
  • 6.5% had smoked a cigar within the past month.

More freshmen and sophomores used tobacco than juniors and seniors. ''This suggests that the cigar use is a new phenomenon entering the college population,'' researchers write.

Other findings:

  • Michael Thun and colleagues from the American Cancer Society in Atlanta dispute claims that the estimated death toll from tobacco — put together by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — was inflated because the research didn't account for the higher proportion of smokers who are from lower socioeconomic groups.

''It quantifies and confirms that tobacco is the culprit,'' Thun says.

  • Florida's ''The Truth'' anti-smoking campaign has reduced the number of teen smokers in the past two years — a 50% decrease among middle school students and a 21% decrease for high school students.