TUESDAY, Dec. 28, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Tobacco companies often give away cigarettes at college bars and campus social events, a new Harvard survey found. And undergraduates who take advantage of the giveaways are three times more likely to start smoking.
The survey found that free cigarettes were handed out on 109 of 119 campuses.
While the research doesn't definitively link the promotions to smoking, it suggests that tobacco companies are clearly targeting college students, said study co-author Henry Wechsler, director of the College Alcohol Studies Program at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"These are very important years," he said. "They're also the earliest years that the tobacco industry can legally try to get new customers."
The research findings appear in the January 2005 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Wechsler and his colleagues analyzed a 2001 Harvard College survey of 10,904 students enrolled in 119 four-year colleges. Almost 70 percent of those surveyed attended public colleges; 13 percent went to schools with religious affiliations.
Of the students surveyed, 8.5 percent said they had attended a bar or social event during the previous six months where free cigarettes were given out. Most of those students said they ran into the giveaways off campus. But 3.2 percent said the promotions took place on campus at bars -- many colleges have pubs designed for faculty, staff and students of drinking age -- or social events.
The researchers found that the students exposed to the giveaways were three times more likely to start smoking or using smokeless tobacco by age 19. But Wechsler said the study's design made it impossible to confirm that there's a "cause-and-effect" relationship.
However, he added: "From my perspective, people wouldn't be giving all this stuff away if they didn't think it had some effect."
The tobacco industry is very interested in convincing college-age people to smoke, said Stanton A. Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research at the University of California, San Francisco.
"Historically, if you go far enough back to the '30s, '40s, '50s and even '60s, a lot of [smoking] initiation occurred in that age group," Glantz said. "In World War I and World War II, a lot of people started smoking when they were in the Army."
Tobacco companies turned to even younger potential smokers in the 1970s and 1980s, Glantz said, but they remained interested in college-age people because many develop permanent smoking habits during that stage of their lives. About one-third of people who experiment with cigarettes as young adults go on to become smokers, he said.
What should be done? "A solution is for colleges to not permit this kind of marketing on their property," Wechsler said.
Glantz agreed: "It's totally irresponsible of them [colleges] to do it because they're basically complicit with the tobacco industry. They're allowing these tobacco companies to prey on their students."
Wechsler added that "we should redouble our efforts at having smoke-free establishments that will be much less likely to have these kinds of events."
Dana Bolden, a spokesman for Philip Morris, the largest tobacco company in the United States, said not all tobacco companies distribute free cigarettes. Philip Morris, he added, doesn't engage in giveaways and wants the federal government to ban the practice by other companies.
Bolden added that his company, which makes Marlboro, Virginia Slims and other brands, does hold invitation-only music events for customers who sign up to receive information about its products.
As for the charge that tobacco companies are trying to entice college students to smoke, Bolden said his company only markets to adults 21 and older, even though it could legally pursue potential customers as young as 18.
The University of Rhode Island has more about college students and smoking.