Every day at work I'm stunned over and over again. No, it's not a Taser factory. I work at the University of Manitoba, where I like to think I am surrounded by the cream of the crop of intellectuals and innovators. Or at least a couple of smarty-pants with a plan.
However, it's getting harder and harder to suss out the smart ones, since so many of them have cigarettes stuck in their yaps. And before you post an angry comment below, I'm not saying that all people who smoke are stupid. I'm not intolerant enough to deny that many people are so completely addicted that quitting isn't a rational option. Not unless they want to end up in a white suit with extra-long sleeves and snazzy buckles in the back. Trust me, I get the whole addiction thing. The only difference for me is that my fix comes in chip bags, pop bottles and chocolate bar wrappers as opposed to cigarette packs. Ahem.
'Why in God's name would people who have grown up with the message that smoking can kill them … now start doing the very thing they know will cause them a world of hurt?'
No, when I'm talking about stupid behaviour, I'm talking about the people who are young enough to know all the reasons why they should never have started smoking, and have the brains to figure out what will happen if they continue. Everywhere I go on campus nowadays, I see university students puffing away like The Little Engine that Could.
It's been a creeping kind of thing, this tide of tobacco. At first I thought maybe it was just my own warped perspective. Maybe all the places I go on campus are just regular smoking spots for kids looking to ruin their health. Admittedly, I am not a gym rat, so the likelihood of me running into students who would rather go wall climbing or take a Zumba class than spark up a cancer stick is low.
So I brought my question to the internet. I found a 2003 Health Canada report that showed university and college students smoking at almost a 50 per cent higher rate than the general population. A 2014 study from the University of Waterloo found that while the rate of smoking for college graduates had undergone a large and fairly steady decline, that trend had reversed in recent years.
Stress, body image cited as factors
For me, the big question is why? Why in God's name would people who have grown up with the message that smoking can kill them (or at least negatively impact their health) right under their noses now start doing the very thing they know will cause them a world of hurt?
As with other human behaviours, smoking is rooted in a variety of plausible and not-so-plausible rationalizations. Among university students I've talked to, one of the main reasons for taking up smoking is stress. I've spoken with several grad students and this topic comes up over and over again. A lot of these individuals weren't smokers in junior high or high school. They aren't smoking due to peer pressure. They just took up the habit because they are stressed out by the amount of studying/homework they have to do and the pressure to come out of university with something like a career-ready skill set, so as not to be drowned by student loans when they finally graduate.
Another reason cited quite often was body image. This generation is particularly aware of the benefits of being fit, or at least looking like you work out regularly. Quite different from my day, when the only six packs you talked about came with a bottle opener…and a pack of cigarettes. Since smoking has been found to be an effective appetite suppressant, it's no surprise that young people trying to lose weight or keep it off aren't averse to the occasional cigarette to keep those food cravings to a dull roar. Especially when they are prone to eating whatever is handy on campus during those all-night study sessions. In my day, it was Jolt Cola, chips and pizza. Not quite the "Breakfast of Champions" if you're interested in keeping your girlish figure.
Misinformation also drives some students to take up smoking. There is a huge push in Asia by tobacco companies to sell their products to the entire population. A World Health Organization study found that less than a quarter of China's citizens believe that smoking causes strokes, heart attacks and lung cancer. Many health professionals in China (including doctors) are smokers, and more than one-third of the people surveyed had seen people smoking in health-care facilities.
In the end, it all comes down to the usual suspects: stress, image and ignorance. Young people today are no more immune to those bugaboos than anyone else in the general population. As far as I'm concerned, the solution is obvious: get Big Tobacco off their cases. Make smoking as awkward as possible by banning it on university campuses altogether. Stop selling cigarettes and related products on university property. For those students who are only casual smokers, it will likely eliminate the urge to light up. And saving some lives is better than nothing … isn't it?
Jo Holness is a Winnipeg writer.