College Tobacco Use Prevention

It is estimated that 25% of adult smokers began to use tobacco in college (click here). Methods that can help prevent the initiation of tobacco use when students relocate to college campuses include social norming campaigns, policy, and tobacco-related services.

Social Norming

College students often have misperceptions about how much and how many of their peers smoke. Such misperceptions can influence behaviors. When it comes to smoking, if college students think it's normal to smoke, they are more likely to do so. So it makes sense that to combat smoking, we need to change what students think is normal with accurate information. The truth is, only about 31% of college students smoke (click here). Though this is a high percentage, it means 69% don't!

Why do we form these misperceptions?

Constant Exposure

Constant exposure affects our perceptions of how common something takes place and cigarettes are used in obvious places, we believe smoking is more common that it is! People often smoke around the entrances of buildings regardless of the weather, light up in bars, restaurants, and at parties, or walk and talk while smoking, so we can't miss them. Such explicit and implicit pressure can increase the likelihood of tobacco use, particularly in college students.

The Media

The media, including ads and movies, makes smoking look normal, and is also a source of pressure to use tobacco for students. Though the use of characters in advertising to appeal to younger populations has declined, we can all still identify who Joe Camel he is and what he looks like. Magazines still publish tobacco ads, tobacco companies promote concerts, and smoking occurs in tons of movies at rates higher than in the real world.

Correcting Misperceptions

Correcting misperceptions with social norms interventions can effectively prevent college students from beginning smoking. However, with these types of interventions, behaviors often remain unchanged.1 Check out our Cessation page for more ideas on how to create programs to help people QUIT using tobacco products.

Dr. Wesley Perkins, an important name in the field of social norming, recommends the steps below to use a social norming approach.2

Collect data

Find out what positive behaviors are true norms on your campus, like how many people don't smoke, and what misperceptions exist about those norms. You can do this by asking students to fill out questionnaires, or by asking your health center or psychology department if they already have data about this. See our Evaluation section for more information on campus data collection.

Advertise the truth!

Let students know that most students are healthy when it comes to their choices about tobacco. Use the school paper, website, and hang posters. Use the techniques of social marketing to promote the truth about positive social norms and lower the misperceptions that exist. See our Build Your Coalition section for more information on campus promoting.

Notice change and document results!

Once misperceptions have decreased, see if behavior has changed in students by collecting data again. Share the progress with other college initiatives and S.T.O.P.S. members!

Other College Prevention Methods

Increase the Cost of Tobacco Products

It's true, as college students, we're cheap because we're broke. The more cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, and other tobacco products cost, the less likely we are to start smoking, and the more likely those of us who already smoke are to cut back.3

Policy & Environment

Regulations like Maryland's Clean Air Law, which will go into effect on February 1st, 2008, have the potential to significantly reduce smoking rates among college students.3 This regulation will make it illegal to smoke in bars and restaurants and will likely to have a positive effect on college students, such that fewer will start smoking. For those who already smoke, there will be benefits as well, because restrictions on public smoking decrease the number of cigarettes consumed by smokers.3 Campus tobacco-free policies are also important methods of preventing tobacco use among students.

Environmental and policy changes that discourage tobacco use can prevent use on campuses, too.4 For example, if college buildings, like dormitories and living quarters are smoke free, nonsmokers are protected from passive smoke exposure and all students are protected from the fire hazard of tobacco use in dormitories.

Such change decreases the visibility and accessibility of tobacco use. This can decrease the chance that nonsmokers will start to smoke, prevent occasional smokers from becoming regular users, and increase the success of students trying to quit.

Another option is to promote the formation of smoking designated areas on campus, so that doorways and walking areas are kept relatively smoke-free.

See our Policy section for more information.


If your college does not provide prevention and treatment programs that address tobacco use encourage them to do so. Such programs should also emphasize that initiation of tobacco is not an on/off switch; it occurs over time, and everyone experiences different stages of initiation over time. Prevention programs should address all types of tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, hookahs, cloves, etc. College students use various forms to tobacco, and all students should be equipped with information on the risks associated with use, as well as resources for quitting use. See our Tobacco 101 section for more information on various tobacco products.

Helpful Prevention Links

Tobacco Technical Assistance Consortium: College Tobacco Prevention Resource

Reducing Hookah Use: A Public Health Challenge For the 21st Century



  1. Werch, C. E., Pappas, D. M., Carlson, J. M., DiClemente, C. G., Ghally, P. S., & Sinder, J. A. (2000). Results of a social intervention to prevent binge drinking among first-year residential college students. Journal of American College Health, 49, 85-92.
  2. Perkins, H. W. (Ed.). (2003). The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Chaloupka, F. J., & Wechsler, H. (1995). Price, tobacco control policies and smoking among young adults. NBER Working Paper No. W5012. Available at SSRN:
  4. Rigotti, N. A., Lee, J. E., & Wechsler, H. (2000). U.S. College students' use of tobacco products: Results of a national survey. JAMA, 284(6), 699-705.
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