Teens heed cigarette lures Tobacco: Despite the "anti" campaigns, the percentage of college freshmen who smoke is at its highest in 30 years.

January 17, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this article.

After registering for classes at Towson University yesterday, freshman Mike Healy stood outside the student union doing what surgeon generals' reports, high school health teachers and public service announcements have told him all his life not to do.

Dragging deeply on a Newport Menthol, Healy stood surrounded by a half-dozen other students who braved the chilly damp to respond to nicotine's tug.

"I like it," said the 18-year-old from Ellicott City, the smoke wreathing his goatee, earrings and baseball cap.

"I guess it's rebellion. Older people bother you about it, tell you you shouldn't smoke. But truthfully, I like the buzz."

He's got plenty of company.

A survey released this week shows the percentage of college freshmen who smoke is at the highest level in 30 years.

Three decades of anti-smoking crusades have had no net effect on reducing smoking by educated young adults.

The numbers from UCLA's survey of more than 384,000 first-year college students are striking evidence of the scale of the challenge facing public health experts as they try to convince a new generation that tobacco kills.

They are a reminder that even as the cigarette companies seem to be on the defensive, settling lawsuits and battling criminal charges, they are doing just fine where the numbers count most: recruiting new smokers.

"It's interesting because the tobacco industry has taken so much heat in the last year or so, yet the students are smoking more," said Linda J. Sax, a UCLA education professor and director of the survey.

Freshmen questioned

Answering a four-page questionnaire distributed on campuses by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute during freshman orientation last fall, 16.1 percent of students said they smoke "frequently."

4 And 18.9 percent said they smoke "occasionally."

Women had a slightly higher smoking rate than men, a reversal of gender differences among adult smokers.

The proportion of frequent smokers was the highest since 1967, when 16.5 percent of freshmen said they smoked frequently.

After 1967, the freshman smoking rate declined steadily until 1987, bottoming out that year at 8.9 percent.

Then it began a slow, steady climb back up, undoing all the progress that anti-smoking educators believed they had made.

The UCLA results are supported by data from an annual University of Michigan survey showing that daily smoking among high school seniors declined in the 1970s, leveled off in the 1980s and has climbed steadily in the 1990s, reaching 24.6 percent last year.

Someday they'll quit

Of a dozen Towson University student smokers interviewed this week, all had assimilated the anti-smoking message, and all expressed the intention of quitting -- eventually.

"It's completely bad for you," said Kristen Wood, an 18-year-old Towson freshman from the Eastern Shore.

"You have stinky breath. It gets in your clothes."

But as she lectured on, sounding like a middle-school gym teacher, she paused for puffs on a Marlboro Light.

"I figure I'll quit when I get pregnant," said Kelly Christ, 21, a sophomore, suggesting that would be no time soon.

She quit for a couple of days around Christmas, she said, but went back to her Marlboros.

"I was sick of it. I thought it was disgusting," she said. "But I'm addicted."

David vs. Goliath

Public health experts say the rising smoking rate underscores how much more powerful advertising campaigns and Hollywood-led fashion trends are than health information in determining behavior.

"There's a certain David and Goliath factor," said Lloyd D. Johnston, a psychologist who directs the University of Michigan study.

"You have $6 billion a year in cigarette advertising and untold billions in free advertising on TV and in the movies, and you put up against that some little school health curriculum."

Anti-smoking activists say it is no coincidence that freshman smoking started rising again in 1987, the year R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. introduced Joe Camel, the pool-hustling, saxophone-playing marketing miracle.

Internal company documents made public this week suggest that the cartoon character was the culmination of a campaign by RJR to catch up with Philip Morris' Marlboro brand in sales to teen-age smokers.

Lighting up the screen

An equally powerful influence may be the return of smoking to the movies in the 1990s.

A new study by the University of California San Francisco finds that smoking in movies fell from the 1960s to the 1980s but has increased sharply over the past few years.

In 30 top-grossing films released since 1990, the incidence of smokers among lead characters was four times higher than the rate in real life, the study found.

The researchers expressed skepticism about cigarette makers' claims that they have dropped the practice of paying movie studios to highlight their products.

All the student smokers interviewed this week denied they were influenced by advertising -- but could instantly name recent films in which lead characters smoked.

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