An Edinburgh University review of young people and smoking within England reported that smoking prevalence amongst 16-19 year olds was at 21% in 2007; amongst 20-24 year olds it was 31%, the highest prevalence of any age group. This only really tells us what many already know – that whilst some students come to university with three years or more of smoking already under their belts, many more only start smoking once they get there. In 2015, all you have to do is poke your head round the door of any university building to estimate how many Edinburgh University students smoke. It is not difficult to determine who appear to be the seasoned addicts and who are ‘social smokers’, either. Statistics are no longer necessary for showing us that smoking is a serious issue amongst students, and it’s not enough to simply blame the nicotine anymore: the numerous explanations as to why this is such a problem really need to be addressed.
Recently, somebody told me that their parent’s doctor claimed he would prefer young people to inject heroin with clean needles than to smoke. Smoking is associated with an increased risk of multiple cancers, including the lung, oesophagus, bladder, pancreas, kidney, liver, stomach, bowel and ovaries, and despite killing roughly 100,000 people each year in the UK is the single most preventable cause of death in the world. We’ve all seen the heart-rending adverts; we’ve all seen the gruesome pictures. We’ve all watched that video in primary school featuring elderly people linked up to oxygen machines. Smoking causes an unpleasant lingering smell, a persistent cough and cold and potential conflict with the parentals. And yet a considerable proportion of students still continue to smoke, no matter how many times it’s been drummed into them that smoking is not only ridiculously detrimental to their health but also highly addictive. The facts are well known: many just choose to ignore them.
It’s true that smoking amongst 16-24 year olds has decreased significantly over the years. In the seventies, the statistics were much larger: 40% smoking prevalence for 16-19 year olds, and a whopping 48% for 20-24 year olds. However, given the never-ending research, the widespread facts and the 2007 smoking legislation, one would expect the figures to have decreased much faster. These days, almost 1 in 5 of all people smoke. The vast majority of my university friends smoke regularly, one or two like chimneys. Once, when outside with one of them to keep her company, I didn’t realise until five or six minutes later that she had rolled two cigarettes and subsequently smoked them one after the other. Unlike the seventies where ignorance of the consequences of smoking was prevalent, there is absolutely no doubt that smoking is one of the worst possible things you could do to yourself. Which begs the baffling question: why on earth do people still continue to do it?
The most obvious answer is of course that it’s incredibly addictive. BUPA claims that two-thirds of all smokers want to quit, and every year nearly 3 in 10 smokers try to do so – and yet there are still many more smokers than ex-smokers. On a scientific level smoking is very difficult to give up, simply because the drug it contains – nicotine – is both a stimulant and a depressant, meaning it gives both an energy boost and a feeling of relaxation. Additionally, nicotine causes the chemical dopamine to be released, which causes the same contented feeling as chocolate and exercise. While this all sounds very pleasant, extended exposure to nicotine reduces the body’s response to it, meaning an increased experience of withdrawal symptoms. Smoking thus becomes just a way to relieve these symptoms, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Nicotine isn’t the sole addictive quality; many smokers’ reliance on cigarettes is heightened by emotional and psychological factors, such as living or working in a stressful environment and having friends who also smoke: these factors are in abundance at university. Moreover, the wild sense of freedom being away from home causes many students to begin smoking at least more regularly at university, resulting in a whole new wave of smokers every September. The more people smoke, the more likely it is that their friends smoke. It’s easy to slap a ‘peer pressure’ label on this, but in reality a lot of people smoke just because they want to, especially those who smoke lightly (two or three cigarettes a day, perhaps), and who aren’t yet in the firm talons of addiction.
Arguably, smoking has its attractions. It’s sociable, bringing people together and getting them talking; it offers a few minutes peace and quiet in which to sit, think and ponder the world; it provides a respite from stressful situations such as the library or a part-time job. During exam season in particular, many, many students find solace in meeting a friend outside for a cigarette break, shaking up the monotony of revision and reminding themselves that they are in fact human. Smoking can also bring two people together – to meet ‘for a rollie’ offers the same social benefits as meeting for a coffee, but much more flexible and eliminating the need to purchase coffee. Meanwhile, for serious addicts, smoking is simply habit. The daily ritual contains numerous cigarette breaks which would be nigh on impossible to skip.
The difficulty in quitting is accentuated by the fact that smoking is now very normalised, meaning we see it everywhere and get used to it as a part of everyday life – our friends smoke, our colleagues smoke, our flatmates smoke. The less people smoke, the less people are placed near temptation; a decrease in people smoking would arguably make smoking a more controversial sight, discouraging would-be smokers. The University has made a vague attempt at banishing smoking recently, placing signs outside university buildings forbidding smoking within a certain distance – but, particularly outside the main library, these are observed with either amusement or simply ignored, and it could be argued that the university should be doing more to discourage smoking. The question is what. If smoking in public view was frowned upon, it could become less frequent: but whether this is really a viable option is dubious. Under the 2007 legislation smoking is prohibited in wholly or partially enclosed public spaces, but to ban it from all public spaces altogether – which would perhaps be the next step towards de-normalisation – would be verging on discrimination.
Smoking undoubtedly holds its appeal for those who engage with it. Yet the fact remains that it is significantly detrimental to health, and in the long term has crucial concsequences. Young people, including students, frequently continue to smoke as the longer term affects are not as evident in their busy daily lives, either socially or individually, and with the normalisation of smoking it is rarely discouraged. The reasons students in particular choose to smoke are complex and numerous, and may well be impossible to change, but perhaps we should begin to stop normalising smoking, start overlooking the appeal, and stop ignoring the facts.
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