Introduction: The majority of college students who smoke do so on an occasional basis and generally do not define themselves as smokers. This represents a considerable challenge for public health efforts to prevent escalation of use and to promote cessation. Strengthening such efforts will require further examination of the motivations behind occasional smoking within this vulnerable group.
Methods: Based within a priori identified content areas, we conducted eight focus groups of occasional smokers (N=53) at two demographically diverse colleges in the southeastern U.S.
Results: Few participants self-identified as a smoker and few had immediate desire to quit. Most identified extrinsic motivations for future quitting, including college graduation and parenthood. Although participants acknowledged smoking-related health risks, they minimized them as being personally irrelevant. Participants highlighted social (i.e., alcohol and other smokers) and stress-related smoking triggers. They also described how they carefully managed the situations in which they would, and would not smoke in order to preserve their identity.
Conclusions: College students who smoke occasionally appear to engage in impression management, taking effort to shape their personal image to not appear as a smoker. They use smoking mainly as a social engagement tool, but also to alleviate negative emotions. They express minimal desire to quit and believe they are immune to the health risks of smoking. Public health messages should address this common pattern of smoking among young adults differently than regular smoking patterns by highlighting the social, emotional, and health consequences of occasional smoking before nicotine dependence has fully developed.
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