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U.Va. students smoke less than national average

Social smoking remains prevalent

The University revised its smoking policy in 2008, prohibiting smoking within 25 feet of all University building entries and offering to pay for employees’ tobacco cessation medications and programs under the University health and insurance plans.

The change aimed to “provide faculty, staff, students and visitors with a smoke-free, vapor-free environment in which to work and learn while protecting them from the potential health hazards from exposure to smoke or vapor,” according to the U.Va. policy directory.

Both before and after the policy change, University students are shown to smoke less than the national average for college students.

The science of addiction

Tobacco products, like cigarettes, contain the naturally addictive substance nicotine.

Dr. Wendy Lynch, associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, said the mechanisms involved in nicotine addiction relies on cues.

“[Nicotine] is a very rewarding stimulus” Lynch said. “Nicotine has a lot of cues associated with it: the smoking behavior, the cues from the smoke in the lungs, as well as the primary addictive ingredient, the nicotine itself.”

Once an individual begins smoking, the blend of these chemical and environmental substances strengthens the addiction through association with gratification. The fulfillment of one’s craving to smoke activates a critical brain area, the nucleus accumbens, in the hypothalamus.

“The nucleus accumbens is the main reward center in the brain,” Lynch said. “Releasing dopamine, it activates nicotinic receptors in the brain.”

Lynch stresses the harmful effects of chronic smoking and pushes for alternative smoking cessation therapies. These include, but are not limited to, nicotine lozenges, gum, or anti-smoking patches.

“It is a much better situation to be using nicotine in these forms as compared to smoking, which has so many carcinogens,” Lynch said.

How the University stacks up

While only 13 percent of U.Va. students smoke cigarettes, according to a 2012 survey by the University’s Office of Health Promotion, the detrimental effects of second-hand smoking make smoking on grounds a public health concern for students. The University has responded with a stringent no-smoking policy in and around University buildings, as well as a variety of informational and health resources for students and faculty interested in quitting.

The same survey from the University's Office of Health Promotion found that 70 percent of students had never had a cigarette.

Office of Health Promotion data from 2006 holds that approximately 17 percent of U.Va. students identified as cigarette smokers.

In comparison with other colleges, U.Va. has remained consistently below the national average for the prevalence of cigarette smoking among students in surveys carried out in 2006, 2009 and 2012.

Cultural and social influences

Psychology Prof. Edward Diener recalls a time when cigarette smoking was much more prevalent on college campuses. Students, including himself, smoked in the classroom, in seminars and in offices.

Now, cigarettes or other tobacco products are strictly prohibited in academic facilities, lecture halls, libraries and offices.

However, figures on U.Va. students that smoked within a past given month in 2012 reveal a distinct pattern of social smoking.

Social smoking involves the occasional use of cigarettes, frequently accompanying the use of alcohol. It persists in part because of the positive reinforcement of a smoking social network, enabling the behavior.

A 2008 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, conducted by Dr. Nicholas Christakis and Dr. James Fowler, revealed that smokers and nonsmokers tended to cluster together into social groups.

“[T]here was an increased tendency for smokers to be connected primarily to other smokers and for there to be relatively separate clusters of smokers and nonsmokers,” they wrote.

This phenomenon appears to work conversely as well. The study cited “the person-to-person spread of smoking cessation” as a contributing factor in the downward trend of smoking across the general population over the past few decades.

The 2012 report from the Office of Health Promotion supports the increasingly social nature of smoking, with only 2 percent of cigarette smokers identifying themselves as daily users, while more than double that figure, almost 6 percent, only smoked one or more cigarettes one or two days within that past month.

Social smoking often takes place in group settings familiar to students, such as parties or bars. The combined sparse frequency of smoking and its occurrence at off-Grounds locations may reflect or parallel the concurrent instances when students go out with friends during the weekend, a biweekly or monthly indulgence following a particularly difficult week of class.

Fourth-year Connor Roessler, an outreach coordinator intern for Peer Health Education, said that the majority of smoking he has observed takes place within specific groups of friends, and that social smoking does not align with the mainstream culture on grounds.

“I think there’s almost a culture at U.Va. that’s not really geared toward smoking,” Roessler said.

He also said there is a greater prevalence of marijuana smoking compared to tobacco smoking on college campuses.

Several student health organizations on Grounds have noted the persistence of college smoking and provide a variety of resources for students interested in quitting. As an intern for Peer Health Educators, Roessler cited the one-on-one sessions that students can schedule to consult with a Peer Health Educator or the Office of Health Promotion, which offers “quit-kits” as primary resources for those who seek support in the decision to quit.

Peer Health Educators primarily seeks to inform students on the health risks they expose themselves to through smoking; the decision to quit is left to the personal discretion of the smoker.

“It’s more so we would give you stats on what smoking would do to the body, we don’t necessarily give tips on how to quit, we’re more of an information enabling body,” Roessler said. “In health promotion, it’s much more equipped to give people the knowledge and resources to come to the decision on their own versus telling them, ‘This is why you should stop smoking.’”

Graphics by Kriti Sehgal

Read this article translated into Chineshere.

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