Smoking Prevalence Among College Students

Adrienne Durham, MPH

Health Disparities Epidemiologist

An estimated 20 percent of the U.S. adult population are current smokers.  Recent trends in adult tobacco use reveal that smoking prevalence among U.S. adults has decreased across all age groups.  With an adult smoking rate of 24 percent, Indiana has gone from ranking second to fifth in the nation for adult smoking prevalence. Despite this decline in national and state adult smoking rates, young adults ages 18-24 have the highest (26.8%) adult smoking prevalence in the U.S.  Similarly, Indiana young adults ages 18-24 have the highest (34.6%) smoking rate among adults in the state (1).

Figure 1

Source:  Indiana BRFSS Newsletter. Volume 5, Issue 1, May 2007

Approximately one third of young adults attend colleges and universities.  For the majority of these students, it is a time of experimentation and transition into adulthood. Research shows that many 18- to 24-year-olds try tobacco for the first time while in college.  Students who were occasional smokers in high school are more likely to increase their smoking frequency and amount while in college (2).  During 2005, nearly 24 percent of full-time students enrolled in two- or four-year colleges reported that they had smoked cigarettes within the last 30 days.  In comparison, approximately half (12.4%) of those students reported daily cigarette smoking, which suggests that most of them were occasional smokers (3).

A vast majority of college students describe themselves as “social smokers.”

They do not consider themselves to be regular smokers.  Social smoking is strongly associated with alcohol use and attending social events.  It is often viewed as “a harmless pleasure.”  Social smoking is a pattern of tobacco use that sets young adults apart from the general adult population (4, 5, and 6). 

College students who smoke intermittently believe they will be able to quit at some future time, usually after graduation.  This line of thinking suggests college students who smoke do not fully understand the health risks associated with social smoking.  Researchers regard social smoking as a stage of initiation.  Social smokers either quit, become regular smokers, or become heavier smokers, and, more often than not, they become regular smokers.  By ignoring the risks of short-term smoking, students who are “social smokers” set themselves up for a lifetime of addiction to nicotine and smoking-related health problems (4, 5, 6 and 7). 

The tobacco industry has studied the smoking behavior of young adults.  As a result, they have developed marketing strategies aimed at getting young adults to become regular smokers.  Tactics include sponsoring social events at clubs, bars, and college campuses.  Other young adults are hired to distribute free cigarettes and promotional items at these events.  College students are receptive to these types of promotions, particularly students who did not smoke prior to entering college (7, 8, and 9). 

Studies suggest that smoke-free residence halls may be a deterrent to smoking.  College students residing in smoke-free dorms who are non-smokers before entering college are less likely to start smoking (10, 11).  According to the Harvard School of Public Health 2001 College Alcohol Study, “College students who live in smoke-free dorms are forty percent (40%) less likely to take up smoking than their counterparts who live in unrestricted housing.” (11) 

Research has shown that a majority of college students, smokers and non-smokers alike, support tobacco-free policies on their campus.  More than three fourths of students supported smoke-free campus buildings, including dormitories.  The majority (71%) of students surveyed, both smokers and non-smokers, supported banning tobacco sponsorship of campus events and tobacco advertising on campus.  Students also supported prohibiting tobacco sales on campus (59%), and more than half (51%) of the students supported smoke-free campus bars.  Support for smoke-free policies was strong, even among smoking students (12).

There are resources available to assist colleges and universities in creating tobacco-free environments.  The American Cancer Society developed the Smoke-free New England Campus Initiative, which includes a seven-step policy plan (13).  This program was designed to empower college students to make their campuses smoke free.   Also, the American College Health Association (ACHA) has recommended guidelines to address prevention, policy, and cessation for tobacco control (14).  These programs provide colleges and universities with the necessary strategies to achieve tobacco-free campuses.

In addition to developing and implementing campus smoking/tobacco policies, campuses should partner with their local communities in supporting smoke-free ordinances to include night clubs and bars.  Inclusive smoke-free ordinances will help break the connection of drinking and social smoking among young adults (8).  


1.         Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey.  Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human   Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, [2006].  Accessed online at on 02/26/08.

2.         Audrain-McGovern, J. Cigarette Smoking Practices Among American College Students: Review and Future Directions.  Journal of American College Health. March 2004.

3.         Johnston, L. D.; O'Malley, P. M.; Bachman, J. G.; and Schulenberg, J. E. (2006). Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2005. Volume II: College students and adults ages 19-45 (NIH Publication No. 06-5884). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

4.         Join Together: Research Summary.  The Social Smoking Phenomenon.   June 20, 2000.

5.         Murphy-Hoefer, R.; Alder, S.; and Higbee, C.  Perceptions about Cigarette Smoking and Risks Among College StudentsNicotine & Tobacco Research.  December 2004, Vol. 6, Supp. 3, S371-S374.

6.         Moran, S.; Wechsler, H.; and N.A., Rigotti.  Social Smoking Among U.S. College Students.  Pediatrics.  Vol. 114, No 4, Oct. 2004, pp.1028-1034.

7.         Biener, L. and Albers, A.B.  Young Adults:  Vulnerable New Targets of Tobacco Marketing.  American Journal of Public Health.  February 2004, Vol. 94, No. 2, pp. 326-330.

8.         Rigotti, N.A.; Moran, S.E.; and Wechsler, H.  U.S. College Students' Exposure to Tobacco Promotions:  Prevalence and Association with Tobacco Use.  American Journal of Public Health.  January 2005, Vol. 95, No. 1, pp. 138-144.

9.         Gilpin, E.A.; White, V.M.; and Pierce, J.P.  How Effective Are Tobacco Industry Bar and Club Marketing Efforts in Reaching Young Adults?  Tobacco Control. 2005, Vol. 14, pp.186-192.

10.        Wechsler, H.; Lee, J.E.; and Rigotti, N.A.  Cigarette Use by College Students in Smoke-Free Housing:  Results of a National Study.  American Journal of Preventive Medicine.  2001, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 202-207.

11.        Harvard School of Public Health.  Press Releases, 2001.  Students Entering College as Nonsmokers 40 Percent Less Likely to Take Up Smoking When They Live in Smoke-Free Dorms.

12.        Rigotti, N.A. et al.  Students’ Opinion of Tobacco Control Policies Recommended for U.S. Colleges:  A National Survey.  Tobacco Control.  September 2003, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp.251-256.

13.        American Cancer Society.  Smoke-Free New England Campus InitiativeAccessed online at on 04/20/07.

14.        American College Health Association.  ACHA Guidelines.  Position Statement on Tobacco on College and University Campuses. Accessed online at on 04/20/07.