Understanding tobacco use in young adults

Tracey Barnett Ph.D.

There is a common misperception among young people that hookah smoking is cigarettes’ harmless cousin. That’s a troubling notion for public health researchers like Tracey Barnett, Ph.D.

“It’s surprising that anyone thinks there is a safe way to use tobacco,” said Barnett, an assistant professor in the college’s department of behavioral science and community health, who studies health risks across the life course.

Rooted in Middle Eastern culture, hookah pipes burn charcoal and tobacco, also known as shisha. Air is drawn through the tobacco and into the pipe, where it passes through water. Among the popular myths about hookah is that the water in the pipe acts as a filter, shisha doesn’t contain tobacco or that it’s a more pure form of tobacco that doesn’t have as many chemicals, Barnett said.

During a typical 20- to 80-minute hookah session, users may smoke the equivalent of 100 or more cigarettes, according to the World Health Organization. Hookah smoking can deliver 11 times more carbon monoxide than a cigarette, in addition to high levels of other carcinogenic toxins and heavy metals found in cigarettes.

Barnett has studied hookah behaviors among college students and with the support of an American Cancer Society Chris DiMarco Institutional Research Grant, she is examining the levels of carbon monoxide experienced by hookah smokers. In another study, Barnett and colleagues at the Florida Department of Health found that the hookah smoking craze has reached Florida’s middle and high school students. In 2007, 11 percent of high school students and 4 percent of middle school students reported trying hookah.

Barnett is currently working with fellow department faculty member Jamie Pomeranz, Ph.D., who is leading a National Institutes of Health-funded study to create a tobacco cessation program for people with disabilities. Other collaborators include several department faculty members: Barbara Curbow, Ph.D., Michael Moorehouse, Ph.D., and Mary Ellen Young, Ph.D.

In her research Barnett tracks other types of tobacco use in young adults, including new trends, like snus, a smokeless, spitless tobacco, as well as cigarette smoking.

“The general U.S. population has held steady at a 20 percent cigarette smoking rate, but use is going up among college students, especially weekend social smokers,” Barnett said. “Many say they’ll quit when they graduate, but it’s not that easy. Smoking ends up becoming a daily activity.”

Part of the challenge in educating young adults about the risks of tobacco use is getting them to understand the long-term consequences of their behaviors, Barnett said.

“Many of us know at least one person in our lives who has become ill as a result of smoking. For this generation of young people the consequences of smoking should be personal. We’re trying to understand why kids start these behaviors.”

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