Nicotine use still an issue on college campuses- but maybe we just don’t understand it


Calum Sullivan

“I know it’s bad for my health in the long run,” she says, exhaling a puff of smoke into the cold night air.  It’s 6:45 on a Sunday night, the perfect time to relax and smoke an e-cigarette outside one of Viterbo’s many smoke-free residences. “Honestly, I prefer cigarettes so much more,” she adds, referencing the device in her handI started vaping because my friends were upset that cigarettes would be bad for my health in the long run.”  She adds, “I don’t think vaping is much better.” 


According to a 2019 study by Monitoring the Future, a research group studying drug use in American colleges, 22 percent of college students reported having used nicotine vaping products in the past 30 days.  While this number may seem alarming, it becomes even more so when contrasted with just six percent of students reporting the use of nicotine vape products only two years earlier.   


When asked about nicotine use on Viterbo’s campus, interviewees were candid. Referring to it as “pretty common,” both students seemed interested in quitting.  “My main reason for using nicotine is addiction. It’s incredibly hard to quit because of external triggers that make me think about using [it],” said one student.   


While many current college students can remember a time in their high school experience when vape use was common among students, most individuals would probably say that trend passed. Indeed, sometime between the momentous events of Juul removing its Fruit Medley flavor and the order of then-president Donald Trump banning the purchase of nicotine products to individuals aged under 21, most people thought the time of nicotine use among students in colleges and high schools was on the way out.  What has contributed to the return of nicotine as a fixture in the lives of college students across the country?   


Interviewees referenced one possible factor, the stress of a pandemic and the toll it has taken on mental health across the country.  “I started smoking again when we all got sent home last spring,” said one respondent. “I quit for a bit when we got back to campus this fall, but after a few weeks ended up starting again.” It’s fair to say that a substance whose most known quality is relaxation and relief from stress has never had a wider market, with almost all college students feeling more stressed and anxious during a life-altering pandemic than ever before.   


Additionally, the rise in popularity of nicotine vaporizers has given many nicotine users a second wind.  One student referred to the introduction of vaping as “arguably the worst thing to happen in terms of my nicotine usage.  I probably would not have kept using after freshman year at Viterbo if not for that,” he added.  While respondents differed in how they felt about whether or not vaping was better than smoking cigarettes, responses indicated vaping as much more socially acceptable.   


While many hopeful parents and optimistic students had once labeled the use of  

nicotine as a declining aspect of life on college campuses, it looks like trends might be indicating just the opposite.  


What can we do to lower the number of individuals smoking on campuses?   It seems that the first step includes just accepting that it is happening, and understanding how common it is for college students to use nicotine to escape stress and anxiety.   


Another way to fix this problem might be to address the reason most people start using any drug: mental health.  According to a survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “More than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless.”  Additionally, “Almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus. Yet, 34.2 percent reported that their college did not know about their crisis.”  Students often turn to nicotine or other substances for an escape or a sense of peace.  It seems that the best way to help our students to stop using nicotine would be to address what seems to be a mental health epidemic on our campuses.   


Perhaps if we continue to push for better mental health education, including education on what the DSM has now classified as Drug Dependence Disorder (addiction), better counseling services, and easier routes to achieve treatment for mental health conditions, we could lower the number of individuals dealing with nicotine addiction.  But there may be an even more simple solution.  One of the most powerful tools we possess as human beings is the ability to connect and listen to one another.  Empathetic listening, a staple of any good counselor’s job, is vital to recognizing and managing the mental health of communities everywhere.  And while it may seem cheesy to suggest that better listening can help us lower the number of students smoking nicotine, well, it may be just that simple.   


Nicotine use is more and more common on our college campuses, and while it may be easy to ignore the issue, it is vital we recognize and treat the cause of this condition.  Through better education, treatment and the simple act of listening to one another, we can create change on our campuses and possibly reduce the number of college students turning to nicotine for relief at the same time.