Despite significant inroads being made in efforts to decrease tobacco use, smoking still retains a strong grip, especially on Irish campuses. Peter Molloy examines the issue.

Sitting in the office, the classroom, or the library? Try the following. Once every hour or so, for the remainder of your working day, make your way to a designated area of the building, spend two or three minutes briskly downing a pint or a shot of spirits, and return to your desk.

For a variation on the procedure, substitute the alcohol with a regular joint, or a quick line of coke. Even attempting the above in an average daily environment like a workplace or college will rapidly result in life-altering personal consequences.

Quite aside from the basic point that endeavouring to keep up with such an heroic intake of stimulants will swiftly render the user utterly incapable of carrying out their daily activities in any kind of worthwhile fashion, there’s the equally unavoidable fact that behaviour like this will inevitably incur sanction and criticism from colleagues.

Yet replace the substances mentioned with a cigarette, a roll-up, a pipe, or any other legitimate method of consuming tobacco and the scenario changes in a flash from a nightmarish image of personal addiction to one that will – and indeed does – go unremarked upon.

After all, everybody knows that smoking is bad for you, but it’s unlikely to negatively affect your professional performance or personal character – at least not in the short term. Tonight, no one is going to plough a car into a wall or swing a punch outside a take-away because they’ve had too much to smoke.

Therein lays the crux of the matter. Smoking effectively represents the final frontier in terms of our attitudes to addictive substance dependence. It has all the basic attributes of its more insidious cousins. Like alcohol or illicit drugs, it’s extremely addictive; it’s an expensive habit to maintain, and it has an undisputed negative health impact.

Despite all of this, however, the vice succeeds where other substances have receded in retaining a unique grip across a multitude of people, and Irish campuses offer no exception.

Smoking in Ireland doesn’t occupy anything like the position of public prominence and acceptance it did in the past. Increased public consciousness about its inherent risks, the introduction of the smoking ban in 2004, and repeated increases on the price of tobacco products have diminished to a certain extent ubiquity of smoking, but it’s still definitively there.

The most recent authoritative report on the issue, published by the EU last week, suggest that as many as 1 in 4 Irish people can be considered regular smokers. The EU report also included the starker statistic that deaths in this country directly related to smoking amount to nearly 7,000 per annum.

Specific aspects of college-life, like socialising, as well as the stress imposed by exams and assignments, are often cited by student smokers as representing particular obstacles

Take a stroll from one end of UCD to the other and the one thing you can be guaranteed of seeing – whether it’s first thing on Featuresa cold Autumn morning or at a busy week-day lunch time – is people clustered around building entrances and exits, rhythmically inhaling. So how, amongst a specific demographic that is intelligent and well informed, does smoking remain a significant feature?

For Dr Sandra Tighe, director of UCD’s Student Health Service, part of the problem rests in the fact that young people who smoke consciously distance themselves from what they know to be a very real risk:

“They don’t think that the ill effects apply to them. When you tell someone [who smokes] ‘well, you know you’re at increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, chronic bronchitis, and lung cancer’, they see it as happening so far in the future that it’s not relevant to them. It’s in the future… whereas if you developed something right now, and I said to you; ‘that’s because of cigarettes’, you’d have more of an incentive to give up. It doesn’t hit – it doesn’t really make a difference to the way young people think”.

Dr Tighe also pointed out that some of the more common conceptions about smoking, such as the oft-quoted assertion that young girls see smoking as a way to lose weight, aren’t necessarily groundless, explaining “For that age group, the girls tend to smoke because they’re worried about putting on weight.”
Smoking is a thoroughly addictive vice, one that can be frighteningly quick to take hold of the average individual- the relatively small quantity of seven cigarettes will suffice in creating an addiction.

For a student smoker contemplating the idea of trying to kick the habit, what kind of realistic options are available? At present, neither UCD’s Student Health Services or the Students’ Union do not make any specific provision for offering practical assistance, something remarked upon by SU Welfare Officer, Conor Fingleton:

“There is nothing…at the moment, because the Health Centre is very stretched [in terms of resources]. But if a student goes up, they will give them information from ASH Ireland and other agencies that help people quit, and they’ll put them in contact… with anti-smoking lines”.

Some of the most significant obstacles facing smokers attempting to quit can be trying to change a familiar daily routine to which smoking is central. Specific aspects of college-life, like socialising, as well as the stress imposed by exams and assignments, are often cited by student smokers as representing particular obstacles; something described as a “cultural addiction” by Dr Tighe.

“They feel like they’re not able to at the moment – they feel that they need it to deal with stress. You can help them to think about what else they can do for a break, rather than going out for a cigarette.”

As adults, there is a definite limit as to the extent that student opinions towards smoking may be influenced. Ultimately, people cannot be coerced into ceasing the habit – any move toward quitting smoking must be voluntary.

“There’s no point… in hammering away at people. [If you do that], humans being humans, they’re going to say ‘you’re not telling me what to do’. Whereas if you enter into a conversation with them and find out even why they’re not interested in giving up, and what they get out of it [that can be more productive]”.

First Person: Read Peter’s thoughts on throwing out his own fags.