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Burning Out at Harvard

Students Buck National Smoking Trend

By Brant K. Wong

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.

Others, such as Charles C. Finch, executive director of America's Golden Leaf Tobacco Growers Information Committee, argue that peer pressure rather than tobacco advertising drivers teenagers to smoke.

"Farmers have always discouraged teenage and underage smoking just as the tobacco companies have. We believe that to smoke is a decision made by mature and consenting adults. Advertisements don't make people buy things. I see a lot of cereal advertisements, and that doesn't make me buy cereal. I think that it is peer pressure that leads more teens to smoke, and the regulation of that is something best left to the parents," says Finch.

Finch also disagrees with those who say laws banning the sale of cigarettes to minors are not properly enforced, saying, "It's a known fact that it's easier to buy drugs than it is to buy cigarettes."

Phillip Morris USA also announced initiatives in June designed to curb the problem of teenage smoking. It proposed measures including discontinuing free cigarrette samples, placing warning labels on their products, cautioning retailers against selling to minors, and pulling their merchandise from retailers who are known to sell to minors.

The Tobacco Institute, as well as tobacco companies were given the opportunity to respond, but all had policies prohibiting them from commenting to student newspapers.

Smoking at Harvard

At Harvard as well as at other universities, very few people develop the habit of smoking. Most smokers begin smoking in their early teens and continue their habit through college.

"I smoked since I was 13. I didn't grow up in this kind of freaky environment that we have in the East Coast. Where I'm from a lost of kids smoke. I started smoking then, and I don't see a reason to quit now," says William A. Blacken-ship '96, who says he smokes two packs a day.

While it is unlikely that tobacco advertisements or peer pressure will make many Harvard students take up the habit of smoking. Grammarossa points out that college is often a place where pre-existing smoking habits are enforced by peer groups that share the habit. Smoking is very much a social activity, she says.

"A lot of the people I've seen who smoke a little bit socially will have a couple beers and see everyone else smoking and then think 'Oh, cool, I'II just have a cigarette too,'" says Ingrid M. Anderson '98.

According to the Crimson phone poll, the vast majority (57 percent) of Harvard students chose the category of pure enjoyment as best describing the reason why they smoked. This was followed by social pressure (13 percent); other, which includes drunkenness and curiosity (12 percent); the desire to relieve stress (II percent); and habit (7 percent).

However, these categories do not fully include the social aspect of smoking, since social relations can be included in both the simple enjoyment and social pressure categories.

"For me I can say it's a social thing. That's the reason I started. A bunch of my friends smoke so I picked it up from them. Honestly, I think that this is the case for most people at Harvard. Smoking is something which I generally see at parties and at the Grille," said Anatole K. Kleiner '98, who says he is an occasional smoker.

Smoking seems to play a significant role in Harvard life. Groups of smokers can be seen in such places as House courtyards, the Crimson Sports Grille and outside Sever Hall.

According to The Crimson's phone poll of 340 Harvard students, 37 percent said they had used some nicotine-containing product within the past year. Roughly three quarters of those who had used nicotine fit into the category of the occasional smoker, someone who indulges in one or two cigarettes on weekends or a few cigars each year to celebrate special occasions. The remaining quarter of nicotine users are regular smokers, those who smoke more than 10 cigarettes a week.

There is evidence that smokers gravitate towards each other when forming friendships.

According to the poll people who smoke have a significantly higher percentage of friends who smoke than those who do not.

"It really depends on who you hang out with. I know certain crowds where everybody smokes and other crowds where nobody smokes," says Olivia B. Ha '98.

Smokers at Harvard also tend to gravitate towards certain concentrations, with humanities concentrations having the highest percentage of smoking students (42 percent), social sciences having 41 percent, and natural and applied sciences having 28 percent. A smoker was defined here as one who had used a tobacco product at least once in the past year.

While many students do feel peer pressure to smoke, a countervailing trend of health consciousness also makes smoking difficult. Wendy A. Mackey-Kydd, a health educator at University Health Services, says, "It's almost like a social pariah to be a smoker, at least for an adult, and it may be for a college student."

Blankenship admits others have reacted negatively to his smoking. He and several other students requested and got a non-smoking hall in Currier House so that he could freely enjoy his cigarettes in his area of the House.

"People were having problems with people smoking last year and as opposed to moving out, we just wanted some sort of compromise worked out. So we have a smoking hall now and a non-smoking hall," Blankenship says.

Thus, while smoking at Harvard can give one a sense of community with other smokers, it can also isolate one from students who dislike exposure to tobacco smoke.

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