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Smoking makes the campus scene

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College life has long provided young people with a smorgasbord of late-night diversions.

But now students have been flocking to bars, nightclubs and campus parties for a new kind of social event: tobacco-industry-sponsored parties, complete with complimentary cigarettes. A new study suggests these parties are a powerful marketing tool that encourages some to start smoking.

Nearly one in 10 college students have gone to an industry-sponsored party, according to an article in the January edition of the American Journal of Public Health. Students at all but one of 119 colleges surveyed have attended the parties. At some schools, 27% of students have attended tobacco bashes, which often include live music and freebies such as T-shirts.

Students who did not smoke before college were almost twice as likely to start if they attended industry-backed parties that included free cigarettes, the article said. The article was based on results from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Survey, for which nearly 11,000 students were interviewed in 2001. Although the study does not prove that such parties directly led people to smoke, the authors say there might be a strong link.

The findings should serve notice to college administrators, says Nancy Rigotti, director of the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Tobacco-sponsored events aim to link smoking with alcohol, music and socializing, Rigotti says. Binge drinkers and marijuana users were more likely to attend these parties. The rate of cigarette smoking declined from 1993 to 2000 among all adults, except those ages 18 to 24, according to the study. Researchers note that college students are the youngest legal target for tobacco marketing.

Tobacco companies agreed not to market to anyone under 18 as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with 46 state attorneys general. Tobacco companies have since shifted their marketing efforts toward brand-centered social events, Rigotti says.

''The tobacco industry is still clearly marketing to young adults as replacement smokers to replace the ones who die,'' Rigotti says.

David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, says the company does not hold any promotional events on college campuses. The company does give away cigarettes at events at bars and nightclubs -- which may be located near colleges -- but only to smokers who can prove they are 21 or older.

Customers also must sign an agreement certifying that they are interested in the promotion.

''Brand-sponsored events are a very effective and responsible way for us to communicate with adult smokers,'' Howard says.

Dana Bolden, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, says the company does not give out free cigarettes, and its events are open only to those with invitations who are over 21.

The American College Health Association suggests that colleges should not permit companies to give away tobacco products, such as cigarettes or smokeless tobacco, or to sponsor events on campus.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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