Monday Medical: Many start smoking in college

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Amazing progress has recently been made on lowering the smoking prevalence rate among all groups with the regrettable exception of one: college-aged young people from 18 to 24 years. As other age groups show trends of kicking the habit, this age group has demonstrated steady increases.

Because prevention has largely focused on younger adolescent and high school students and the efforts to get people to quit have focused on older adults, this middle group has not been receiving either message. Knowing this, the tobacco industry is taking advantage of this vacuum and marketing to them at the tune of $22.5 million every day!

College is a time to experiment with different lifestyles and habits, and the use of tobacco is a burning issue. More than one-quarter of surveyed students reported starting to smoke while in college.

We all should know this fact: Too many people who start "social smoking" believe it is only a short "phase" in their lives, yet many who begin the habit become tobacco-dependent adults. In fact, 50 percent of those who smoke as adolescents will continue smoking for at least 16-20 years!

Almost half of current college smokers do not consider themselves smokers nor do they believe they are addicted. The increased smoking rates were found in all types of colleges and with all levels of academic competitiveness.

Those of us involved in health education know that tobacco users experience more frequent and more severe colds because of decreased immune responses. It is our immune system that plays a critical role in eliminating viral infections.

We also know that cigarette smoking accounts for about 30 percent of cervical cancer deaths in the U.S. Female smokers have a two-fold increase in the incidence of the disease - most cases of which are caused by a virus - over non-smokers.

There are also social issues to consider about smoking. Smokers smell bad and smoking does not make anyone look attractive. Is it any wonder that more than 90 percent of students say they would rather date a non-smoker?

A college experience should include strong cessation programs to prevent transition from the occasional to regular, full-scale nicotine-dependent smoking or chewing. It's a time to teach users how and why to quit. Health and counseling centers should adopt the practice of asking students if they use tobacco at intake. Colleges should employ environmental and policy changes that discourage and even prohibit tobacco use.

Students should inquire about expanded tobacco-free areas and make sure that their dormitories and other shared living quarters are smoke- and tobacco-free. These areas not only eliminate second-hand smoke, they also limit the visibility and accessibility of cigarettes or other products around those who are trying to quit or are still only occasional smokers or spit users.

Just 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart damage similar to that of an everyday smoker.

Finally, it is essential for parents to remind young adults about the risks of any form of tobacco use. Stress that they should be aware of tobacco clubs at bars and to avoid product giveaways and discount coupons. This disturbing rise in smoking among the most highly educated youth in America should be a wake-up call about the problem of smoking at all levels of society.

So, the message to young people is clear. Make the decision to be a non-smoker because habits formed early really do have a tendency to last forever or for a very long time. Tobacco is bad for you today, not just decades in the future.

- Teresa Wright, MPH, CHES, is the Tobacco Prevention Coordinator at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association. She can be reached at 871-7639.

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