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46 Percent of College Students Have Used Tobacco, Study Says

By Ridgely Ochs

In the first such survey to include cigar and smokeless tobacco, a study found that close to half of college students have used some form of tobacco in the past year.

“My opinion is that these students are playing with fire,” said Dr. Nancy Rigotti, director of tobacco research and treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the lead author. “They are putting themselves at risk for a lifelong addiction.”

Rigotti, speaking at a news conference at the 11th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, said the study should be “a call to action” for colleges, many of which do not have smoking “on their radar screen.” She said colleges need to ensure that buildings are smoke free and provide programs similar to those on many campuses that aim to reduce alcohol and drug use. Students using tobacco products -- especially cigarettes -- are more likely to use marijuana, binge drink and engage is risky sexual behavior, the study found.

The survey of 14,138 college students done in 1999 found that 46 percent had either smoked cigarettes, cigars or used smokeless tobacco in the previous year. And in the past 30 days, about 28 percent of both men and women had smoked cigarettes, about 8.5 percent reported smoking a cigar, 3.7 percent smokeless tobacco and 1 percent a pipe. Men were four times more likely to smoke cigars than women. The study is published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

More than half of tobacco users reported using more than one product: Cigarettes and cigars were the most common combination.

Tobacco educators need to redirect some of their attention to young adults, Rigotti said. “Tobacco control has focused on kids and adolescents. We have forgotten young adults; we need to redress that,” she said. This age group represents “the youngest legal target” of the tobacco industry, she added.

Cigarette use among college students rose from 22 percent in 1993 to 28 percent in 1997, and this survey shows that that increase appears to have leveled off. Although whites are more likely to smoke cigarettes than black students, black males are as likely to smoke cigars as whites.

The rise in cigar smoking is a “new phenomenon,” Rigotti said, one that began in the early 1990s as cigar manufacturers stepped up advertising. Cigar consumption increased by 50 percent between 1993 and 1998, reversing a 30-year decline.

One-third of student cigarette smokers and 99 percent of cigar smokers do not smoke every day, the study found. But even occasional use is cause for concern, Rigotti argued, because low levels of tobacco exposure can cause disease and death, “as research on passive smoking has shown.”

Fred Baker of the American Cancer Society’s Behavior Research Center is an author of another study published Wednesday looking at the health risks associated with cigar smoking. The paper was the result of an American Cancer Society meeting on the issue two years ago.

Baker said that experts at the meeting concluded that smoking cigars instead of cigarettes does not reduce the risk of nicotine addiction, particularly among current or former cigarette users, who are more likely to inhale. In addition, Baker said, some cigars have as much nicotine as one pack of cigarettes.

As the number of cigars smoked and inhaled increases, the risk of death related to cigar smoking comes close to that of cigarette smoking, he said.