Social smoking on rise despite dip in cigarette use
Mary Schmidt-Owens has seen people kick the habit firsthand. She's watched and supported them take the first heavy step of a grueling journey to stop smoking, to turn puffing a few packs a day into only a few cigarettes a day, and — eventually — none.
According to "Truth," a campaign that uses commercials and multimedia to inspire a movement to end cigarette smoking, the habit among teenagers has gone from 23 percent in 2000 to 9 percent now.
This decline is mirrored by the college-aged crowd, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 20 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds smoking in 2010, and 17.3 percent in 2012 — a 13.5 percent decrease over two years. A CDC official said the report for 2013 has not yet been released.
However, when you factor in social-smoking activities such as hookah, e-cigs and cigarillos, the number of students who claim to be "non-smokers" despite these habits is on the rise, according to research from the American Cancer Society. Among these students, 70.5 percent didn't associate with being a smoker, despite using some kind of tobacco product five days or fewer per month, a 2007 study shows. Between 22 and 40 percent of college students try hookah at least once, the CDC reports.
Eric Asche, chief marketing officer for Legacy, the nonprofit that runs Truth, echoed these numbers saying that social smoking has seen a spike among college-aged individuals.
Schmidt-Owens is UCF's associate director of medical health administration, and she runs the free smoking-cessation support group held on campus. For her dissertation, Schmidt-Owens dedicated extensive time to research the different methods that college students could use to quit smoking, and the triggers that fuel the habit.
"A lot of the time it may be related to stress," Schmidt-Owens said. "Or, it may be on the other side, they may do it to relax … it goes either way. For others it may be association — they come out of class and they're smoking between classes. They're in the car, driving to school and they're smoking."
In her research, she's found that group support coupled with the option of medication proved to be the most successful and effective methods for college students. But Schmidt-Owens said other efforts on campus and in the media can also be helpful, such as the smoke-free campus initiative that was implemented at UCF two years ago, or commercial campaigns such as Truth that encourage youth to "be the generation" to end smoking.
Although people are encouraged not to smoke on campus, the policy cannot actually be enforced.
Recent commercials feature smoking statistics packaged in hip background music, vibrant typography and photos of teen- to college-aged youth. The campaign encourages youth to stop partaking in activities that encourage a positive image of smoking, like snapping and liking smoking selfies on social media. Truth's November video spotlighted Florida for reaching a record low in teen smoking rates, stating that it went from about 16 percent in 2005 to about 8 percent this year.
"I think each one of us — we all have a level of influence on the people around us," Asche said. "The first thing people can do is think about their social footprint, and the influence they have on the people around them."
Asche said that a normalization of the behavior happens with the spread of images online, and that for college students, the availability of social pastimes like hookah have become rampant.
"We're really trying to understand all the dynamics in play, but there seems to be more of a social norming in social smoking," he said.
Schmidt-Owens said studies demonstrate that the less time a person spends around smoking, the less likely they are to start the habit. The reaction current smokers may have to commercial campaigns may vary, she added. For some, it's effective, but others may see more graphic or gruesome commercials as hitting too close to home of what is happening to them. And despite the campus smoke-free policy being non-punitive, Schmidt-Owens said she has noticed a decrease of smokers in hotspots on campus, such as outside the library.
"Even if you touch a few, the influence those few have on their circle of friends, that's the way it spreads," she said.