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Nicotine Tob Res. 2007 Aug;9(8):845-52.

Smoking, but not smokers: identity among college students who smoke cigarettes.

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  • 1University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, Denver, CO, USA.


Cigarette smoking in college is often described as social smoking, but the term lacks definition and implicitly discounts dependence. We report on college students' use of the terms social smoker and smoker. Students who currently smoked cigarettes were asked whether they considered themselves smokers, and whether they smoked because they were social smokers. The survey was conducted during 1999-2004 at eight colleges; analysis was limited to 1,401 students aged 18-24 years. More than half of students (56.3%) denied being smokers ("deniers") despite current smoking behavior. Half of deniers, and fewer than half of admitters, called themselves social smokers. Deniers were highly likely to smoke infrequently, to say they were not addicted to cigarettes, to have mostly nonsmokers as close friends, to prefer dating nonsmokers, and to smoke for reasons other than stress relief. In contrast, social-smoker identity was associated only weakly with any attitude, behavior, or belief. Smoker and social-smoker identities were not significantly correlated with each other. Regardless of identity, more than half of the respondents wanted to quit smoking by graduation. Results suggest that denying being a smoker may be a widespread dissonance among college students who smoke. The possibility should be evaluated using population-level research, because it has potentially undermining implications for smoking cessation campaigns. Campus health centers should avoid using "smoker" self-assessment items on pre-exam questionnaires. Further research is needed to explore the psychosocial mechanisms involved with denier identity, to clarify the implications for public health communications, and to develop appropriate intervention strategies.

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