COLLEGE PARK – On a recent quiet evening, 40 women are tucking into cheesecake at the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Maryland College Park.
For the moment, diets are on hold. So are dates and homework. This is a time to celebrate girl power: For a month now, most of these sorority sisters have been smoke-free. And they’ve done it as a team, part of a contest organized by the University Health Center.
The contest was a response to a spring survey of 1,000 sorority sisters on the College Park campus that showed 65 percent smoked, almost half on a daily basis.
The College Park numbers are not unusual. For some years now, statistics on women smokers — and particularly college-age women — have concerned health experts, who point out that young smokers are likely to develop diseases like lung cancer earlier.
Looking for ways to fight back, Jody Gan, smoking coordinator at the health center, hit upon the idea of a quit-smoking contest among the sororities. The sorority that stayed most smoke-free for a month would take home a $500 prize. Students who quit would also win individual “healthy” prizes, like spa certificates and aerobic classes.
Fifty-four students from 10 sororities enrolled for the contest, more than the 50 Gan was expecting. She said the number of successful students has not yet been tallied, but she predicts it will be a good number, just going by the number of students in the room.
For someone like Deena Soudah, 19, who was looking to quit but just didn’t have the resolve, the contest was a perfect spur.
“I didn’t want to be old and wrinkly,” said Soudah, who started smoking in high school because “it was an image thing. At the time it seemed pretty cool.”
She said she smoked two packs a week and never stopped to think about the risk to her health. What she was really worried about, she said, was her parents finding out, which they did eventually. But even they could not get her to stop.
“I thought I was invincible,” she said with a laugh.
Jennifer Knapp, 19, did know of the health risks. “My grandmother died of smoking-related emphysema,” Knapp said. But at 15 — the age she started smoking — the pressure from friends who smoked was too strong to resist.
She smoked “just three or four cigarettes” each day, but on evenings at a bar, she recalled, she would go through a whole pack. Now, having tasted freedom, she said she will never go back to smoking.
“I even hate being around other smokers now,” she said.
Knapp belongs to Alpha Epsilon Phi, which took the $500 prize. Chapter President Lauren Behar estimated that around 15 of the sorority’s 65 sisters enrolled in the contest.
“We saw each other through this,” Knapp said. “Every time one of us wanted to smoke, the others would encourage her not to.”
But Behar, 20, pointed out that a lot of individual initiative was also needed. “In the end it was up to each of them to really want to quit,” she said.
The rewards are now pouring in. The gifts, the free T-shirts handed out by Gan, and the cheesecake are just the icing.
“I feel so much healthier. I definitely see a difference just walking to class,” Knapp said. “I feel less tired and breathless. And I save so much money.”