A New Kind of Smoking?

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Heed my cautionary tale about how ideology sabotages insights.

Back in 2000, I set out to prove that cigarette smoking, like other ills, was rooted in the United States’ horrendous rates of youth poverty. Poor kids smoke; rich, educated kids don’t. Want less teen smoking? Fix poverty.

Smelling journal publication, I gave an anonymous, unannounced written survey to my upscale, health-conscious, ultra-liberal sociology classes at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The results I expected were surely a lock. We Californians congratulate ourselves as a global phenomenon in tactics to reduce smoking: larcenous tobacco taxes; mega-millions poured into ultra-prevention; smoking bans to the Nevada border.

As for Santa Cruz? Center of New Age cleansing and leftist anti-corporate fury? How could such an environment spawn anything but resoundingly tobacco-free students?

That evening, I stared in disbelief at 200 surveys, which showed that 63 percent of my students had smoked cigarettes in the past year, including 42 percent in the previous month. These modern young Californians, bombarded since birth with cutting-edge healthy-living messages, had smoking numbers that looked like those in southern Virginia.

Yet, I could see no evidence that students smoked in such numbers. Sure, I’d smelled burning aplenty on campus: pot, incense, wildfires, but not tobacco. I’d seen no knots of furtive nicotiners. No frantic rush to the doors at break time during three-hour lectures. No heaps of telltale butts.

Could my classes have conspired to mess with me? Not likely on an unannounced survey, especially when the next 10 classes I surveyed over subsequent semesters showed similar results.

I admit it. My first instinct was to do what social scientists do when reality blows our cherished theories to hell: Dump reality in the trash. That’s routine procedure. Ever wonder how researchers miraculously manage to report study results that match their own views and those of their funders?

But I was too intrigued by such weird findings. Then I noticed that while six in 10 had smoked in the past year, only 4 percent smoked as much as half a pack a day. The vast majority were “social smokers,” lighting up less than once a week. Most just took a few puffs. Half didn’t finish even one cigarette in a sitting. I later found they mostly passed a cigarette or two around a group, like a joint.

Over five years, I collected 670 valid surveys from 12 classes. All showed the same thing: Social smoking was rampant among my students, abstinence from tobacco was the exception, and addictive smoking was rare.

They were not following their mommies’ or daddies’ habits. Students whose parents smoked reported that nearly all of those parents were addicted, daily smokers, not social puffers.

A survey at the health center in a nearby community college found a similar pattern among poorer students. Monitoring the Future shows the same trend among high schoolers. While monthly smoking among 12th graders is only slightly lower than it was 25 years ago, daily smoking – particularly heavy daily smoking – has plummeted.

Predictably, anti-smoking groups ridicule “social smoking.” Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have sneered that it’s just “a stage in the uptake of smoking.” An anti-smoking ad by the state of California predicted that young “social smokers” will progress rapidly to pack-a-day smokers. No evidence; just assertions.

However, my students maintained their social smoking for five, even 10 years after they began smoking. More importantly, three-fourths of the student smokers surveyed, including 93 percent of social smokers, said they smoked less today than in the past.

But isn’t all smoking unhealthy? A 2005 study in Tobacco Control found that compared with those who smoke 25 or more cigarettes per day, those who smoke up to four per day experienced sharply reduced risks of heart disease, cancer and mortality, although they still suffered slightly higher rates than nonsmokers. This dose-response effect suggests that even lighter social smoking (a couple of times a month or less) would cut the hazards of smoking to negligible levels.

My limited initial study, published in the Californian Journal of Health Promotion in 2006, indicates that social smoking by today’s young people isn’t simply stupid behavior by kids who’ve been seduced by the tobacco industry. It appears to bring genuine pleasure to many. Humans evolve over time to manage even serious risks without the absolute abstinence demanded by backward health puritans who equate smoking three cigarettes a month with three packs a day. Innovative policies that deter addictive smoking are likely to prove more productive than punishing even the lightest smoking.

To an old-time anti-tobacco activist like myself, these findings were startling; they require larger, longer-term replication. But being open to emerging realities, rather than endlessly repeating purist dogmas, is what working with and researching young people should be about.

Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the online information service http://www.YouthFacts.org. mmales@earthlink.net.