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Anthropology of the First Puff: An Inquiry into the Beginnings, Cultures, and Contexts of Tobacco use in Students at Washington University in St. Louis
Research Mentor and Department
Dr. Peter Benson
Cigarette smoking is widely recognized as the leading cause of preventable mortality in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths per year. Although smoking rates in adults have steadily declined over the past twenty years, smoking among college students has risen sharply. The objectives of this study were to: 1) explore the contexts within which individuals in a particular population smoke a cigarette for the first time; 2) examine how these contexts and perceptions of smoking contribute to the smoker’s future habits, and 3) determine whether any novel circumstantial factors exist that increase one’s risk for initiating smoking behavior. Quantitative data were collected from students (n=59) using surveys, and qualitative interviews (n=9) were conducted on the Danforth Campus of Washington University in St. Louis. Contexts addressed in the surveys and interviews included, but were not limited to, alcohol consumption, stress, social smoking, regret, parental influence and current smoking habits. Results countered the current literature, which suggests that college students begin smoking before they arrive on campus, and support the assertion that smoking cigarettes is strongly associated with alcohol consumption among college students. In addition to corroborating associations of cigarette use with stresses of college life and partying, results of follow-up interviews revealed novel social factors, including “coolness,” gender and attraction, and studying abroad, which may increase one’s risk of initiating, and establishing smoking habits during college.