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Casual smoking is not a good idea in the frat house – or the White House

Contact Information:
Media Contact:
Dean Forbes, (206) 667-2896

SEATTLE – President Barack Obama won two-thirds of the 18-29 year old vote, thanks largely to his popularity among college students. As a role model, however, the president has one habit that students would be better off not imitating: his widely-reported intermittent cigarette smoking. Contrary to what many college-age casual smokers believe, they are at risk for becoming addicted to tobacco, as well as more likely to drink too much alcohol, exercise too little and experience more depression.

These are some of the findings of a new study that will be published this spring led by Abigail Halperin, M.D., M.P.H., director and attending physician for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Smoke Free Life Program, a service of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center/SCCA Cancer Prevention Clinic and Lung Cancer Early Detection Clinic.

According to Halperin, college students comprise the largest group of so-called “social smokers.” These smokers appear to be more resistant to antismoking efforts because they do not consider themselves smokers, do not think that they will become addicted, and don’t believe that their smoking presents a health risk.

“Contrary to these beliefs, there is growing evidence that even occasional smokers experience greater health risks when compared to non-smokers and are likely to progress to regular, dependent smoking over time,” said Halperin, who is also associate medical director of the “Free & Clear” Tobacco Quitline, which provides cessation services for 18 states, including Washington, and director of the Tobacco Studies Program at the University of Washington.

“President Obama is trying hard to quit smoking, but the longer one waits to quit, the harder it is to stop and the higher the risk to one’s health,” Halperin said. “So, students who admire our president and smoke, even just a little bit, should stop now, and encourage their hero to do the same - for his health and the health of other young people who might be tempted to start smoking and not be able to quit until it’s too late.”


Previous studies have shown that those who smoke even a few cigarettes per week have higher risk for smoking-related cancers, and symptoms of nicotine dependence have been reported in young people only weeks following the initiation of smoking, even among those who don’t smoke every day.

The current study shows that any amount of smoking is strongly associated with high-risk alcohol use (including drinking and driving), emotional or physical abuse, depression, less exercise, and increased utilization of emergency and mental health services. In adjusted analyses, dependent smokers (those who wake up in the morning wanting to smoke) were more than twice as likely to be depressed, report emotional or physical abuse, or seek counseling for mental-health issues compared with smokers who did not report morning craving. 

 Halperin and colleagues examined the results of health surveys filled out by more than 2,000 college and graduate school students at five universities in the U.S. and Canada. Among their findings:

  • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of all students reported current smoking, with more than a third (41 percent) smoking less than one cigarette per day.
  • Of those who smoked daily, 80 percent smoked fewer than 10 cigarettes per day.
  • Almost half (45 percent) of all daily smokers reported waking up in the morning wanting to smoke, a cardinal sign of dependence.

The researchers concluded that college students who smoke, even occasionally, are at risk for tobacco dependence and long-term health consequences of smoking, as well as more immediate harm due to associated health risks and behaviors.

Free help is available to all smokers through the National Quit Line: 1-800-QUIT NOW.




About the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, established in 1998, unites the adult and pediatric cancer-care services of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center. A major focus of SCCA is to speed the transfer of new diagnostic and treatment techniques from the research setting to the patient bedside while providing premier, patient-focused cancer care. Patients who come to SCCA receive the latest research-based cancer therapies as well as cutting-edge treatments for a number of non-malignant diseases under development by its partner organizations. SCCA has three clinical-care sites: an outpatient clinic on the Fred Hutchinson campus, a pediatric-inpatient unit at Children’s and an adult-inpatient unit at UW Medical Center. For more information about SCCA, visit www.seattlecca.org.


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