January 6, 2014
There will be a landmark anniversary observed this week. Saturday, Jan. 11, marks the 50th anniversary of the release of then U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry’s report that linked smoking to illness and death.
According to an Associated Press news article in Sunday’s Mankato Free Press, the report “has been called one of the most important documents in U.S. public health history.”
Despite the findings, warnings and proven outcomes, college-aged students still take up smoking. Statistics vary with one study published in the Journal of American Medical Association claiming 28 percent of U.S. college students are smoking. The number appears equal between men and women smoking cigarettes.
Unfortunate, but not surprising, such statistics remain a sign of the times that has passed through generation after generation since cigarettes first gained social acceptance. What has evolved is a social cycle of naïve, bulletproof coolness that mostly targets the young. The sense of freedom that comes with college provides a prime testing ground for smoking.
Like many, I had my first cigarette as a teenager. To me, it looked cool and felt daring. I can’t say I liked the taste. When I got to college, smoking remained a social thing although I did reason that it helped combat stress during long nights of studying. Fortunately, I never got hooked although I remained a social smoker until my first child was born. My smoking days ended with a New Year’s resolution that stuck. Many were not so lucky and now contend with an $8-a-pack addiction ($15 in New York) and health issues.
While one University of Michigan study states that 5 percent of college students are daily cigarette users, it appears most college-age smokers continue to label themselves social smokers. Non-smoking measures such as smoke-free zones ranging from bars to entire campuses have deterred college smoking – particularly in Minnesota where satisfying the urge can mean standing outside in -25 degree weather.
Now new “technology” is putting an untested twist on smoking – the e-cigarettes. These devices don’t burn tobacco, thus produce no second-hand smoke. Instead, a battery heats up a cartridge which releases a vapor of nicotine that the user inhales. The addictive vapors can be laced with flavors like chocolate, fruit, candy or even tobacco, thus causing 44 percent of parents to worry that e-cigarettes will encourage kids to use tobacco products, according to a University of Michigan study.
The e-cigarette still contains addictive nicotine but it is too new to have many warnings or restrictions – but efforts are in the works.
The age-old cigarette debate all boils down to what we are willing to teach, to learn, to accept as a warning, to weigh against our quality of life. After 50 years, progress has been made. Perhaps the key lies in our collective reaction between “that’s so cool” and “that’s so sad.”