More College Students Smoking Pot Than Cigarettes

Posted on September 12th, 2015
Posted in Marijuana

Marijuana has dethroned the tobacco cigarette as the vice of choice among U.S. college students. About 6% of college students said they’d smoked marijuana nearly every day daily in 2014, according to data released in September 2015 by Monitoring the Future, an ongoing national survey conducted at the University of Michigan. That percentage, up from 3.5% in 2007, is the highest figure in the study’s 34-year history. By contrast, only 5% of students said they smoked cigarettes every day, a staggering decline from the 19% who admitted to daily smoking in 1999.

“It’s clear that for the past seven or eight years there has been an increase in marijuana use among the nation’s college students,” Lloyd Johnston, PhD and principal investigator of the study, said in a news release. “And this largely parallels an increase we have been seeing among high school seniors.” The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research has surveyed U.S. college students about their substance use every year since 1980.

One of the reasons for the increase in marijuana use might be that more students regard marijuana as benign or low-risk. According to the study, 55% of 19- to 22-year-old high school graduates viewed regular marijuana use as dangerous in 2006, while just 35% saw it as dangerous in 2014.

These findings come amid increased concern about the effects of marijuana on the young adult brain. An April 2014 study conducted by researchers from Northwestern and Harvard universities found that using marijuana just once a week causes structural changes in areas of the brain that control motivation and emotion.

Bad News About Nicotine

Even the decline in cigarette use has a downside. “Unfortunately,” said the Monitoring the Future news release, “the appreciable declines in cigarette smoking have been accompanied by some increases in the use of other forms of tobacco or nicotine.”

The survey found that the number of students smoking tobacco with water pipes called hookahs increased from 26% in 2013 to 33% in 2014. As with marijuana, misperceptions about the dangers of hookah use are likely at work. For example, a 2012 University of South Florida study found that more than half of the undergraduate and graduate students surveyed said they believed hookah smoking was less harmful than cigarette smoking. Research, however, shows that just one hookah session delivers 1.7 times the nicotine, 8.4 times the carbon monoxide and 36 times the tar of one cigarette.

“Significant” Increase in Cocaine Use

The Monitoring the Future study also found that cocaine rose in popularity. The number of students reporting they’d used cocaine in the past year rose from 2.7% in 2013 to 4.4% in 2014. The news release called the increase statistically significant but said it was too soon to know if a trend was developing.

“We are being cautious in interpreting this one-year increase, which we do not see among high school students; but we do see some increase in cocaine use in other young adult age bands, so there may in fact be an increase in cocaine use beginning to occur,” Dr. Johnston said.

Mixed Results on Alcohol

A lower rate of the nation’s college students is routinely abusing alcohol, the researchers reported. The percentage of students saying they’d been drunk in the previous 30 days was 43% in 2014, down a bit from 48% in 2006. Just 5% of respondents were “extreme binge drinkers,” defined as consuming 15 drinks in a row at least once in the previous two weeks. However, college students were more likely to be heavy drinkers, meaning they’d consumed five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks, than their non-college peers. The researchers noted that 35% of college students reported heavy drinking, compared with 29% of respondents who weren’t in college.

Still, college students’ rates of heavy drinking dropped from 44% in 1980 to 35% in 2014. High school seniors’ rates were cut by more than half, from 41% to 19% during the same period.

Heroin, Painkillers on Campus

Perhaps the best news coming out of the survey was that the nationwide increase in prescription painkiller and heroin use hadn’t made its way to college campuses. The rate of nonmedical use of OxyContin and Vicodin declined from almost 9% in 2006 to about 5% in 2014. Very few college students use heroin, the report noted, and use of the drug over the past five years on campuses was lower than use in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Another drug is also falling in popularity. The use of synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 or spice, plunged from 7.4% in 2011 to just 0.9% in 2014.

And Dr. Johnston said there was more welcome news for parents sending their teens off to college this fall: “Five out of every 10 college students have not used any illicit drug in the past year, and more than three-quarters have not used any in the prior month.”

By Laura Nott

Follow Laura on Twitter at @LauraSueNott

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