COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Class is over, and the smokers have huddled on the steps near the building’s entrance.
At their feet are dozens of cigarette butts – tar-stained testaments to smoking’s continued popularity among college students.
University of Maryland sophomore Victor Vega leans back on the steps and smiles as he draws from a cigarette.
“I like smoking,” the 19-year-old Spanish major says. “I realize it’s because I’m addicted. It doesn’t matter. It’s a necessity, like milk or eggs.”
Recent government and Harvard University studies show more teen-agers and college students, like Vega, are smoking despite well-publicized risks.
More than 28 percent of college students smoked in 1997, up from 22 percent in 1993, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study published last month.
The trend threatens to reverse decades of progress. When the surgeon general first declared smoking a health hazard in 1964, about 42 percent of adults smoked. But fewer than 25 percent of adults smoked in 1995, according to the most recent federal records.
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and kills more than 400,000 people each year, according to the federal government.
More than 7,000 Marylanders die each year from smoking- related illnesses, and caring for sick smokers has cost the state about $1.7 billion since 1965, said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
Those figures will rise again if young smokers don’t quit, said Dr. Albert L. Blumberg, the president of Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition of prominent health groups.
“We’re losing the battle,” Blumberg said. “This college study is just a reflection of what has happened to high school students,” where numbers of smokers are also rising.
Most disturbing, the Harvard authors say, is that many of the students who first tried cigarettes in high school didn’t become regular smokers until college.
“It’s just a very depressing story,” Blumberg said. College students ought to know the health risks of smoking, he said.
Many of the 13 smokers interviewed this week at three area schools – the University of Maryland, Bowie State University and Montgomery College – said they began smoking regularly in college.
And many said they smoke to assert their independence.
“It’s a phase,” said Tonya Johnson, 22, a senior at Bowie State University. “It’s just a social act that you pick up from your friends.”
Friends played large roles in the anecdotes of many smokers.
“It’s classic peer pressure,” said Nicholas Giannakopoulos, 20, a sophomore at the University of Maryland. The psychology student said he and his closest friend first smoked when they were 14. “We just did it as something to do.”
“I know the risks, but it’s hard to quit,” he said. “I’ve done reports on it and everything.”
Most said they had tried to quit before. But few said they planned to stop soon.
“College isn’t the time to quit,” said Michael Veasey, 21, a senior at the University of Maryland. “Right now, the benefits outweigh the cons. I’m not worried about it.”
Others said they would quit after leaving college.
But University of Maryland senior Ingrid Stack admitted, “I’ll probably smoke for life.”
That’s what health advocates fear most. “Part of the fallacy out there is society thinks it’s easy to stop smoking, and for some people it is,” Blumberg said. “But for most people, it’s nearly impossible.”
John Howells knows firsthand. The Montgomery College student tossed his cigarette aside as he recalled his father’s struggle to stay smoke-free.
“My father smoked for a good, long time. He still has dreams about smoking. That’s how strong the addiction is,” he said.
Howells, 34, said he has tried to quit many times since his first cigarette 18 years ago. He succeeded for six years, only to start again. “The cigarettes just keep calling my name,” he said.
All of the students said smoking relaxes them.
The Harvard smoking study was tacked onto an alcohol survey, but the researchers found no link between smoking, drug use or binge drinking.
But some students said drinkers seemed more likely to smoke.
“I’d always just tell myself, `I’ll only smoke when I’m drinking,’ ” Vega said. The sophomore said he started smoking and drinking in high school. “Then I was smoking before class. When I got to college, I was smoking all the time.”
Vega said he hopes to quit sometime.
Health advocates hope rising cigarette prices will force smokers like Vega to stop. Prices for a pack began rising by about 45 cents last week, not long after the nation’s major tobacco companies settled health claims with 46 states. A pack can now cost nearly $3.
“There’s a lot of things you can do with that $3,” Johnson laughed.
Many students said the cost would force others to quit, but only one said he had bought fewer cigarettes since prices began climbing.
“I’ve definitely cut back on the number of packs I’ve bought. Hopefully, I’ll phase it out,” said University of Maryland student Farooq Mustafa, 25, glancing at his burning cigarette. He looked up and laughed. “Another lie!” -30-