Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Misguided Optimism among College Student Smokers: Leveraging Their Quit-Smoking Strategies for Smoking Cessation Campaigns

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Misguided Optimism among College Student Smokers: Leveraging Their Quit-Smoking Strategies for Smoking Cessation Campaigns

Article excerpt

College student smokers are a unique group who typically plan to quit smoking by the time they graduate, but few succeed and those who do require multiple attempts. This study examines the strategies of college student participants who successfully quit smoking. They tell a story of trial and error in achieving their goal--one that is more likely to end in another failed attempt than a successful effort unless they learn from past mistakes. Their stories not only show misplaced optimism for quitting but also ineffective smoking-cessation efforts.


   I just didn't want to die when I'm fifty-something years old for
   something as stupid as smoking.

   "They say, "I only smoke only when I drink." ... This is crap. If
   you smoke, you smoke.

   ... I failed the first few times. I was so confident that I was
   done with smoking that I thought that I could smoke a cigarette and
   nothing would happen to me. It doesn't work that way.

These are some of the comments of college student smokers who successfully quit smoking after several failed attempts. Years of exposure to antismoking messages taught them the health risks and gave them all the right reasons to stop smoking but not the tools for quitting. They misjudged the addictiveness of smoking and wrongly assumed that wanting to quit was enough. The American Legacy Foundation's slogan speaks of their plight: "wouldn't it be great if someone told you how to stop smoking instead of just why?"

As college student smokers typically begin to smoke in high school or earlier (Jessor 1998), most have already been habitual smokers for a number of years. Furthermore, most start smoking in the belief that they will quit, usually by the time they graduate from college. Yet, the annual success rate for quitting is less than 5% (National Institutes of Health 2006). One study among high school seniors found that 60% of those who smoked 1-5 cigarettes per day believed they would not be smoking in five years; however, five years later only 30% had quit and 44% increased cigarette consumption (Slovic 2001). Another five-year study funded by the Canadian Cancer Society (2008) found that 70% of teen smokers expressed the desire to quit, but only 19% succeeded for 12 months or more.

Smokers who try to quit often relapse, and the more often they do, the more difficult they perceive it is to quit (Romer, Jamieson, and Ahem 2001). This makes it imperative from a public policy perspective to discover why some students succeed and others fail, and what strategies are effective in order to better serve this audience.

As college student smokers approach graduation, they are at a crossroads in which they either continue smoking--perhaps throughout their entire lifetime--or they attempt to quit. The belief that they are still young enough to quit makes them prime candidates for smoking cessation campaigns; however, the underestimation of their addiction and the lack of insight into effective quit strategies work against their chances for success. One logical path for discovering effective quit-smoking strategies that could be used for cessation campaigns is to gain insights into the experiences of college students who tried to quit and succeeded.

Using a qualitative approach to gain insight into the realities of college-student smoking behavior, this study attempts to understand what drives students to stop smoking and to evaluate the quit strategies they use, in the hope of finding meaningful ways to communicate with this audience. It first considers the problem of smoking, seeks insights from theoretical models, addresses cessation initiatives, and then organizes the data around a set of research questions. Finally, it concludes with leverage points from the student perspective to enhance the effectiveness of smoking cessation campaigns directed at this group.


Tobacco use has been identified as the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, leading to an estimated 440,000 deaths each year and an annual cost of $158 billion (U. …

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