On campus, I'm a rarity: I don't smoke. This may be surprising to educators, politicians and parents who think smoking among young people is confined to adolescents aged 17 and younger.
But on college campuses across the country, young adults are lighting up. According to one poll, the number of college freshmen who smoke rose from 9.1% in 1985 to 12% last year.
At my university, smokers puff away just about anywhere they desire, save for the classroom. They will even light up in the dining hall, where the cafeteria women are too timid or tired to slap them with the $200 fine for violating the Smoke-Free Air Act.
Many of these smokers started in college. In high school, a cigarette is a rite of passage; in college, it's a stress reliever for kids who have never been away from home or a way to belong for the socially ambitious.
It's easier, of course, for young people to start smoking in college. There are no hard-nosed school administrators to stop them, no parents to ransack their room. There are no mandatory health classes on the hazards and effects of smoking. A college ID is all that is needed to buy as many packs as desired.
Given the ease of obtaining cigarettes and the availability of smoking areas, it should not be surprising that smoking is a big problem at my college. A group calling itself Nicotine Anonymous has sprung up. A nicotine-patch program has begun. Kids who smoke at least two or three packs a day can get the patch through university health services.
Part of the problem is that college campuses are ignored by anti-smoking educators and the government. Apparently, the assumption is that because it's legal to smoke at 18, education and prevention aren't required and, in any case, college kids should be mature enough not to start. This makes as much sense as the belief that kids are mature enough to drink once they hit higher education.
What's especially dangerous is the attitude many college kids have toward smoking: They don't believe the habit is harmful. For example, the last time my friend, a smoker, and I watched MTV, she laughed at a commercial that is part of MTV's anti-smoking campaign. In the commercial, a young woman stands in front of three cigarette executives and takes a puff. She chokes. "Don't worry," one executive says, "you'll get used to it." "They make smoking sound as bad as taking pot or something," my friend responded.
Declaring smoke-free classrooms, dorms and campus areas benefits nonsmokers, but it will not stop young people from smoking. It merely inconveniences smokers.
A better way to prevent college students from picking up a cigarette would be to require them to learn about the harmful effects of smoking just as they are taught safe sex to avoid AIDS. At my college, every freshman goes through a safe-sex initiation where bowls of colorful condoms are centerpieces at pizza parties. They are taught what "no" means, given alternatives to sex and supplied with envelopes stuffed with condoms are on every dorm floor.
If the campus smoking problem were as aggressively attacked, lives could be saved. Short of that, 30 or 40 years down the road, today's college kids will pay the price.*