Troubling Tobacco Trends

Smoking at Harvard is a bigger issue than we think

Smoking has long been a problem for many Americans, but anti-smoking campaigns have made serious progress throughout the country. More than 365 colleges nationwide have joined this trend by banning smoking both indoors and out. Harvard has tentatively followed by prohibiting smoking in all areas of upper-class Houses and freshman dormitories and within 25 feet of any university buildings.

On any given night, however, one readily sees these regulations disregarded by smokers huddled in circles in the Yard. These scenes support the idea that smoking is typically a social practice, but given Harvard’s highly competitive and highly stressful environment, one must wonder if students are driven to smoking for more troubling reasons. The Harvard community must understand why students decide to start smoking. In seeking answers, anti-smoking groups need to focus on eliminating the causes, not lashing out at smokers.

Last spring, the Tobacco Control Policy Group, a subgroup of the Institute of Politics, conducted a survey to understand smoking habits among Harvard College students. Out of the 462 students who responded, 10 percent admitted to currently being smokers. These results were lower than the national average derived from the National College Health Assessment during the spring of 2010, which found that 16 percent of those college students who responded had smoked cigarettes in the last 30 days from the time they were surveyed.

While Harvard celebrates a lower smoking average, the IOP’s survey results hinted at other trends that are perhaps more troubling, if not entirely surprising. About 64 percent of the respondents indicated that they have friends who currently smoke and about 53 percent of students have family members who smoke or have smoked. People are more likely to smoke if they are surrounded by friends or acquaintances who smoke.

The Group’s survey also found that the majority of Harvard smokers began smoking when they were 17 or 18, right around the age when most reached college. This indicates that Harvard’s social pressures and stressful environment may be enough to drive many students to smoking, especially if many regard it as a socially acceptable outlet for stress.

To properly address smoking issues on campus, and to support those students who need it, Harvard needs to focus on publicizing already-existing smoking cessation resources and look into establishing prevention programs. Alcohol and sexual health resources are widely available and advertised throughout campus, and there is no reason why tobacco support should not receive the same attention.

Furthermore, incoming freshman receive a lot of information regarding alcohol and sexual resources during their first week on campus. Freshmen should be aware of healthier ways to deal with stress before they turn to smoking. Likewise, freshmen who already smoke would benefit from knowing of the preexisting smoking cessation resources available to them should they choose to quit.

To be sure, the majority of smokers are likely aware of the risks and dangers associated with smoking. About 66 percent of surveyed students indicated they have taken a class or program on the dangers of smoking, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education. These students are within their rights to continue to smoke at Harvard, where appropriate. The stigma surrounding smoking needs to be reduced so that smokers who want to quit feel more comfortable and less judged when they come forward.

A smoking-wide ban, though ideal for some, would also do little to help Harvard smokers. The emphasis should be on supporting existing smokers and creating ways to prevent those at risk from taking up the habit in the first place. As the Tobacco Control Policy Group’s survey indicated, many Harvard students are acquainted with smokers and it is easy to consider smoking a stress-reliever when surrounded by other smokers.

The Tobacco Control Policy Group’s survey may have revealed that the majority of Harvard students do not smoke, but this does not indicate that smoking is not a serious campus issue. Harvard’s social pressures and stressful environment likely perpetuate smoking habits. Focusing on prevention and proactive solutions to helping smokers kick the habit is sure to be a challenge, but it is a more viable solution than simply outlawing smoking or ostracizing smokers. Tobacco is the enemy, not smokers, and Harvard’s regulations should reflect that.

Fabiola Vega ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Mather House.

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