Hollywood's smoking stars are being copied by America's college youth. Jon Marcus reports from Boston
United States public health officials have blamed a dramatic increase in the number of college students who smoke cigarettes on the glamorisation of smoking by the entertainment industry.
Nearly one-third of students now smoke, a 28 per cent increase in just four years, the Harvard School of Public Health reported. That portends a rise in future smoking by adults, and consequently greater rates of smoking-related illnesses, according to researchers.
College students and people with college educations have traditionally smoked less than the rest of the US population. Now that has reversed. A 1994 survey found that about 26 per cent of Americans smoked.
"This rise in smoking among the most highly educated youth in America should be a wake-up call about the problem of smoking at all levels of society," said Henry Wechsler, principal investigator and a member of the faculty at Harvard.
Dr Wechsler said the trend appeared to be a consequence of an even faster increase in adolescent smoking in the 1990s. Earlier studies found a 32 per cent increase in the number of teenage smokers between 1991 and 1997.
They, in turn, apparently have been encouraging their classmates to light up. More than one-quarter of the 14,521 students questioned for the Harvard study said they started smoking while in college. Most adult smokers took up the habit at or before the age of 18.
"One of the lessons learned here is that we must redouble our efforts to make sure young people - particularly those under the age of 18 - don't take up smoking in the first place, which they are now doing in larger numbers," Dr Wechsler said.
Smoking was more prevalent among whites than blacks or Asians, and more students smoked at public and less-competitive colleges and universities than at highly competitive schools.
Despite aggressive anti-smoking campaigns by public health authorities, the entertainment industry has increased its depiction of smoking as a glamorous activity. Another study showed that more than half the top-grossing feature films between 1991 and 1996 had protagonists who smoked.
"The glamorising of smoking serves as an important barrier interfering with other efforts to curb tobacco smoking by teenagers and children," said Jay Winsten, associate dean at Harvard's public health school.
The researchers urged colleges and universities to expand smoke-free areas and ban smoking in dormitories and other shared living quarters.