Why College Kids Always Be Smoking – It Isn’t Exactly Their Fault

Dr. Peter G. Stromberg, along with colleagues Drs. Mark and Mimi Nichter, conducted an ethnographic and qualitative study of college freshmen a few years ago, in an attempt to understand why so many college students transition to regular smoking during their time at school. They orchestrated a 16-month longitudinal (a type of observational study that looks at the same variables over long periods of time) interview study of early-phase tobacco users on two college campuses.  — He does not disclose which universities the study included, which I think is relevant information. Social attitudes vary wildly from university to university based on many factors, such as type of university (public, private, liberal arts, etc.) and location (UA’s values likely differ from UCLA). I would have liked more information concerning the students sampled. —

Stromberg begins by defining agency as “an understanding that the actions they (humans) initate and execute are linked to their projects, and that they understand other human beings in the same way.” He goes on to say, “agency is itself fundamentally a social strategy, a way to closely integrate individuals into cooperative projects.” He claims this sense of agency distinguishes humans from other primates. Psychologist Michael Tomasello says on the topic, “non-human primates are themselves intentional and causal beings, they just do not understand the world in intentional and causal terms.”

Lapses in agency, thus, are situations in which choices seem to be controlled by something beyond ourselves. This includes a range of things, from spiritual possession to drug-induced mania. He references dissociation as a similar and overlapping phenomenon in some cases.

Lapses in Agency in American Society

America’s relationship with lapses in agency is strained. Religious people often discredit these notions, as their faith is based on humans having free will. Stromberg writes that, “in American society, lapses in the sense of agency are typically the site of confusion, political conflict, and even illness. The point is not that lapses in the sense of agency are completely denied.” In American culture, there are, seemingly, no acceptable contexts for a lapse in agency.

Stromberg says of his study sample, “…as Americans – these young people are likely to have little awareness of the ways in which their actions are conditioned by social factors, and to consider most of what they do as a reflection of their own autonomous choices, they are likely to construe lapses of the sense of agency as being due to a mysterious power. Following culture-wide assumptions, they come to understand this power as the addictive potency of tobacco.”

Routines in Early Cigarette Use and the Social Character of Early-Phase Tobacco Use

Stromberg observes patterns in the routines of early-phase tobacco use among college students. The typical setting is at parties or other social gatherings. He states, “this conclusion is based on considerable evidence from interviews in which our subjects, who were only occasional smokers, repeatedly told us that they smoked mainly or exclusively at parties, while more established smokers spoke of smoking at parties or in informal gatherings of smokers.”

He lists three main categories of ideas and practices that are central to fostering this lapse of agency:

Imitation and Rhythmic Entrainment is the first among these. To put it simply, people have a desire to smoke when others do. One interview participant stated, “when you see someone else light a cigarette, you get this urge to do the same.” Others stated how difficult it was to refuse or quit while around people that are smoking. Stromberg asserts there are two reasons for this strong urge to imitate others. The first concerns the social history of smoking, In short, smoking used to be a symbol of status. Those who can handle a cigarette well were likely to be high class. Even when this notion dissipated, the attraction remained. He says of this, “the symbolic associations of cigarettes change more slowly than the structural situation of social mobility.” The rhythmic portion is a bit more difficult to understand, but essentially claims that humans wish to mimic rhythmic activity in groups. Stromberg says, “a rhythmic oral-manual activity such as cigarette smoking can to some extent provoke entrainment in the same way a musical rhythm does.”

Pretend Play is where the cigarette is “used as a prop in performances of pretending.” In this manner, smoking allows a person to role-play a new identity. It creates an alternative sense of environment and atmosphere. He claims it provides opportunities for creative improvisation, which can foster a lapse in agency. Overall, I found this section to be unclear and a seeming grasp at straws. I am not sure what he means, and from what I do gather, I don’t agree with its viability.

Emotional Arousal is the final category, in which people experience a heightened sense of excitement in social environments. Stromberg says this relates to a lapse in agency as, “this arousal is likely to be interpreted as coming from outside the individual, for in fact it is. And that interpretation, of course, lends further strength to the impression that forces are working to compromise one’s accustomed responsibility for one’s own mental states and actions.” In laymen’s terms, social gatherings provide an emotional intensity that creates a sort of “high”, that can in turn foster a lapse in agency.

Conclusively, Stromberg has argued that many college students transition to regular smoking due, in part, to lapses in agency, caused by hypersocial environments. In this way, he claims college students are not entirely responsible concerning their appetite for cigarettes. The wide range of effects they experience are not all chemical in origin, or related to tobacco itself, but can rather be attributed to the environments these activities take place in.


10 thoughts on “Why College Kids Always Be Smoking – It Isn’t Exactly Their Fault”

  1. I enjoyed this chapter, because it put in theory what I have seen in practice. A number of my friends smoke cigarettes, but only, they claim, when they are drinking. Most of my friends only drink when they are with other people (parties), so they only smoke when they are in social party-like gatherings. I often wondered why this was so, and this chapter provided some useful insights.

  2. I really liked this article. It is substance specific, discussing smoking as opposed to just talking about drugs in general. I find it interesting that behavior many times comes down to “monkey see, monkey do.” I have often railed against the idea of “free will.” I have believed for a long time that people more often approximate their behaviors in accordance with their cultural group- Dressler’s “cultural consonance.”

  3. Lende is right that drug use is so personal yet so cultural. In Western society, we see it as a personal issue that society has to fight (“war on drugs”). I wonder what applications research like this could have in shaping future policy regarding drug use and addictive behavior. This article reminds me of previous class discussions on mental illness and how sociocultural dynamics can make life easier or worse for those afflicted. In some cases, sociocultural dynamics “turn on” psychosis. I’d imagine that society also has a role in “turning on” or “vamping up” addiction.

    This article introduced me to the term incentive salience. It seems to me that it could almost be substituted for many of the seven deadly sins. Incentive salience evokes a sense of insatiability. Lende states that you can’t explain addiction just using this term. He makes sense of this insatiability by connecting it back to the environment, society, and present or past states. When we add the idea of habit, then we understand why people use and why they continue to use. I have previously recognized the importance of first-hand and phenomenological perspectives in neuroanthropology but this subject really drives home the issue. As a person who has never been addicted to drugs, I found the subject’s interpretations of their experience to be extremely necessary and helpful.

    I have more issues with the Stromberg article, whose argument was not as well evidenced as Lende’s. First off, I must admit that I have a bias against smoking. I was just having a discussion at lunch with a group of friends about the University banning smoking on campus by January 1st and we were arguing about the dangers of the activity. I’ve always been curious as to why people many age would smoke, knowing what we know now. I do think that to describe an increase in tobacco use as a lapse in agency is a bit overblown. As much as certain social situations might promote smoking, there are just as many societal constraints limiting smoking. I don’t know that I’m sold on rhythmic activity, it seems a bit Freudian. Also, I definitely think a lot of the categories of ideas and practices Stromberg describes can be ascribed to peer pressure. What does he really mean by lapses in agency? In this example, it just seems like an intentional cop out to do what you desire to do.

    Since it’s that time again in the semester where the world seems to end, I found particular meaning in the article “Sleep Quality during Exam Stress: The Role of Alcohol, Caffeine and Nicotine” by Zunhammer, Eichhammer, and Busch. The purpose of their longitudinal study is to determine how the use of the legal drugs alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine change over the academic semester and how sleep quality might be predicted by these changes in drug consumption. A sample size of 150 students was gathered from two public universities in Regensburg, Germany. Students were not selected, but recruited through bulletins, flyers, and through speeches at lectures. The students came from different disciplines (I would be curious to see the breakdown of data across disciplines).

    Study participants were asked to take an online questionnaire a total of three times. The first questionnaire, the Pre-Baseline, was taken before the period of time in which exams started bombarding students. The second questionnaire, the Exam Period, was taken in the midst of exam hell. The Final questionnaire, the Post-Baseline, was taken after exiting this academic hell. Included in this questionnaire was an online edition of the German PSQI and the Regensburg Insomnia Scale (RIS). Participants were asked in a separate survey to rate how much alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine they consumed in the previous week. The Perceived Stress Questionnaire (PSQ-20) was used to judge participant’s perceived stress and was also used to predict sleep quality as well as to make sure the Exam Period was indeed stressful. Results were analyzed using mixed model analysis.

    As a student myself, the results are not all that surprising. Students tend to alter their sleep schedule and spend less time in bed during exam times probably in order to prioritize studying. There is an increase in insomniatic symptoms during this “withdrawal.” Obviously, there is a marked difference from Exam Period to Post-Baseline. I would assume that Pre-Baseline periods still involve the stress of anticipation whereas Post-Baseline is characterized by relief of the task being over. While alcohol and caffeine use changed during the Exam Period, nicotine use stayed the same. Interestingly enough, nicotine was a predictor of poor sleep quality.

    It is clear that culture and the environment affect drug use and addiction. What I really want to understand is the agency involved in mediating use.

  4. This topic is fairly relevant given the current controversy regarding our upcoming January smoking ban on campus. I thought the “lapse of agency” idea was really interesting, especially given how often we actually give up our agency as Americans. Whereas our European counterparts riot and protest with a frequency it has become almost a joke (we were even warned before studying abroad to always have a back up plan for transportation due to how often public transit strikes occur; I experienced two), Americans are notoriously apathetic. We’re not for not wanting to have to be responsible for our own health. We’re known for our low voter outcome (yep, even some of my Austrian friends brought that up — “How could you fight to be the symbol of democracy worldwide, and not even participate in it?”). However, France has one of the higher rates of protests, strikes, and riots, but also one of the highest rates of smokers. This sort of seems to go against Stromberg’s ideas of agency and addiction.

    As an unrelated aside, I actually do sort of get this idea of the pretend play. Almost every single one of my best friends from high school is a habitual smoker and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t join them now or then (there really is a social pressure and weird feeling of camaraderie from it). But when I was abroad? I smoked a lot more often. It was so much more prevalent, yes, but also I was often in a country for only a few days and amongst strangers I’d never see again and using an assumed name and a fake background, and the shock of doing something I would never do in Alabama seemed like a rebellion against myself and my identity emboldened me to further act out of character. To me, in those moments, it was a prop, another aspect of a character. I think it would apply less to a habitual smoker, but it might be a brief form of dissociation.

  5. This chapter was probably the most relatable to the majority of us in the class. If you found yourself not relating you now have a new opportunity at your next social gathering! I thought the lapse of agency hypothesis was very interesting and certainly somewhat observable. If you ask someone who doesn’t smoke why they decided to do so at a party they may not have a very good reason. The imitation idea certainly applies if you just observe groups of people around campus who are smoking. Their imitative actions probably are not conscious but they exist nonetheless.

    1. After reflecting on this text and blog I talked to my parents about what they thought about the idea and their experiences in college. My Dad brought up an interesting point about cigar smoking among men in certain social situations among his generation that he believed is linked to this same behavior and activity in their youth. While he doesn’t smoke because of asthma, many of his friends will bring cigars to parties or dinners and smoke much more than they would in mixed company or than they would if alcohol was not involved. I think you can apply some of the same ideas from the study in the chapter we read to understand that kind of social smoking behavior.

  6. I admit it. I was one of those kids who didn’t understand why other kids would start to smoke. Smoking yellows your teeth, costs money you could spend on something else, makes you stink, is bad for your skin and hair, oh and it can kill you. For the most part, I am still that person probably because I lost both of my grandfathers to cigarettes; one died of lung cancer before I was born and the other I watched struggle for years to breathe until he died from pneumonia due to complications from emphazema. My experience has colored my impression of the habit. But, this is one of those situations in which phenomenology might steer investigators toward what to look for. Those in the class that have smoked mentioned how special that rhythmic activity became. I draw parallels with sipping coffee or messing on your phone. There is something very “safe” in repetition.

    I still don’t believe that the social factors telling the kids to smoke outweighs societal constraints against smoking. It almost seems as though Stromberg et al. is saying that kids are dissociating when it comes to smoking: that they do not know what they do. This appearance of choosing whether to smoke as being “out of my hands” is a willful dissociation from knowledge about smoking. I don’t think most drug use comes down to society forcing your hand. What I think is that how people experience their drug use and any subsequent addiction is the outcome of a series of exchanges between the individual and the society in which they are embedded. As Lende shows, how drug use is viewed varies drastically cross-culturally. We need to use neuroanthropological studies on drug use to inform public policy. If people are going to partake in dissociative trances, then the society needs to find a way to make that possible in a relatively safe environment. Some countries have legalized prostitution because it is one of those crimes that doesn’t go away, so to speak. By legalizing the practice, prostitutes are more able to get the health care and job benefits they need and sex becomes safer. I’m not saying that this is our solution, but if the growing number of music festivals has told us anything, Americans are craving dissociative trances and are willing to travel and spend for the experience.

  7. A lot of my personal experience lines up with this article. People will only smoke at parties or when they’re drunk. I think part of the reason why the environment encourages college smoking is because of the new independence. Most college students are living away from their parents for the first time in their lives, and are of legal smoking age. The prevalence of smoking could also be due to the fact that most everyone on college campuses are finally allowed to smoke.
    This article also made me think of cultural consonance. Anytime a fellow student says they don’t drink or smoke, I find myself shocked — they don’t fit the cultural model of the partying college student. I wonder if the stress caused by low cultural consonance, with regards to smoking and drinking on college campuses, is the reason for the prevalence of these behaviors.

  8. While I am not a smoker, I can admit that I have tried cigarettes and cigars while at parties. In normal life I find both practices abhorrent. However, they seem like the cool thing to do at parties, so for some reason I wanted to join in, partly because of the prior reason, and partly because my best friend was doing it. At least this article has shown me that I am not the only one to suffer from this lack of agency.

  9. Great writeup. I specially agree with the idea of rhythmic entertainment being involved in young people first beginning to use cigarettes. It reminds me of the ritual activity, in which in many cultures, people are afforded the space to disassociate. As was mentioned, American culture does not allow for as many avenues of dissociation as may be found in other cultures. In class, it has been mentioned that checking smart phones can be seen as the new cigarette break, allowing people an opportunity to disassociate from their current surroundings into the virtual world. In the case of cigarette smoking, the activity provides an opportunity to take a break from activities while still being in communication with other people. It makes sense that this form of socializing, while also taking a break, would contribute to building a pattern of continued and more frequent use.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *