Burning Out at Harvard

Students Buck National Smoking Trend

Nationally, teenage smoking is on the rise, but smoking at Harvard appears to be holding steady.

According to a recent phone poll conducted by The Crimson, of 249 undergraduates who were asked if they thought more people at Harvard smoked now than they did last year, 17 percent answered that more people did, 57 percent answered that more people did not, and 26 percent said they did not know.

And the facts back up the general feeling among Harvard students that smoking is not on the rise. A phone poll of 340 Harvard undergraduates found that the smoking population at Harvard--defined as those who consume "nicotine products" such as cigars, cigarettes and pipes--was about evenly divided between those who increased their smoking from last year (28 percent), those who decreased their smoking (33 percent), and those who maintained their smoking levels (39 percent).

That same poll also found that the proportion of people who smoke becomes greater with increasing age, which initially suggests that more people are picking up the habit of smoking during college. But according to Candice Pierce-Lavern, director of government affairs for the American Cancer Society, this is unlikely since 90 percent of the smoking population starts before the age of 18 and most people develop the habit between the ages of 12 and 14.

Given that few smokers develop the habit in college, the nationwide trend of increased smoking should be exhibited at Harvard by a higher proportion of younger smokers. The fact that the opposite is true at Harvard--that smoking prevalence is higher among older students (i.e. juniors and seniors)--suggests that Harvard may not follow the smoking trends of the rest of the nation.


Essentially, Harvard-bound high school students do not share the increased smoking rates of their peers.

A survey of Harvard Square shops supports the nation that smoking is not on the rise at Harvard: the vast majority of store employees could not report a significant increase in sales of nicotine-containing products over the last year.

But on the national level, more teenagers are smoking. A 1994 California study found that while the percentage of adults who smoke regularly dropped from 26.5 percent to 15.5 percent from 1992 to 1995, the percentage of teenagers who regularly smoke rose 2.3 percentage points to 10.9 percent over that same period. And a 1994 University of Michigan study showed a 12 percentage point increase over 1991 levels in the number of high school seniors who had smoked nicotine products in the last 30 days. The same study also showed that the 1994 proportion of eighth graders who smoked tobacco within the last month was 30 percent higher than 1991 levels.

Many are expressing concern about these trends, and they are taking actions to stop it. The food and Drug Administration, led by Harvard Medical School graduate David A. Kessler, has called for new regulations to reduce youth smoking by 50 percent in seven years. In January it will consider whether new regulations should be placed on tobacco advertising. And this past September, California state health officials unveiled a new anti-smoking media campaign directed at youths.

Why More Teens Smoke

The cause of the nationwide rise in teenage smoking is a matter of some controversy. Some, such as Gail L. Grammarossa, project director for the Education and Training Initiative of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, cite the increasing sophistication of tobacco advertising as the main cause of the rise in teenage smoking.

"When they have so many of their population of smokers dying off, they need to find a replacement population. So since most of the smoking population begins smoking in the 1214 age range, it would make sense for them to target younger people," said Pierce-Laven.

Camel dollars and Marlboro bucks--playmoney coupons found in packs of cigarettes which are redeemable for company merchandise, such as jackets and T-shirts--are examples of a more subtle advertising strategy which Grammarossa and Pierce-Laven say are a part of a multi-million dollar advertising strategy focused on enticing minors to smoke. Both women expressed concern that smoking companies could use their advertising to target new and vulnerable markets, such as Hispanic women.

Grammarossa also points out that the three most advertised brands--Camel, Marlboro and Newport--are also the three most popular brands among teenage smokers.

Both women also say that although every state as well as the District of Columbia has laws prohibiting smoking before the age of 18, lax enforcement of these laws also contributes to increased teenage smoking.