Cannabis not Camels: College students now consume more marijuana than cigarettes – study

© Marcos Brindicci
College students in the United States are now more likely to smoke marijuana than cigarettes on a daily basis, according to a study released Tuesday.

The nationwide survey was conducted by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study, and it shows that 5.9 percent of college students in 2014 reported using marijuana on a daily or near-daily basis, up from a mere 3.5 percent in 2007.

On the other hand, only 5.2 percent of college students reported that they smoked cigarettes on a daily or near-daily basis. This is the first time that marijuana use has exceeded cigarette use on college campuses since Monitoring the Future began recording data in 1980.

Pot smoking is up for less frequent users as well. In 2014, 21 percent of students surveyed had smoked pot at least once in the previous month, compared to 17 percent in 2006.

"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, the principal investigator of the study, said in a statement. “And this largely parallels an increase we have been seeing among high school seniors.”

This comes as fewer adolescents and young adults view marijuana to be dangerous. Only 35 percent of high-school graduates saw marijuana as dangerous in 2014, a sharp drop from 55 percent in 2006.

Cigarette smoking, meanwhile, has been going in the opposite direction.

In 2014, 13 percent of the nation’s college students had smoked at least one cigarette in the last month, a decline of more than half from the peak of 31 percent in 1999. The number of daily smokers has dropped by almost three quarters, from 19 percent at the peak to just 5 percent in today.

“These declines in smoking at college are largely the result of fewer of these students smoking when they were still in high school,” Johnston said. “Nevertheless, it is particularly good news that their smoking rates have fallen so substantially.”

But this may not indicate distaste for nicotine among young people as much as it represents a shift towards tobacco alternatives. According to the Centers for Disease Control, e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.

While the decrease in cigarette use is good news for the young lungs, replacing it with marijuana consumption could be a mixed blessing. Marijuana smoke has been shown to contain many of the same carcinogens, irritants and toxins as tobacco smoke, according to the American Lung Association.

The fact that marijuana is smoked differently is cause for concern as well. Users generally hold the smoke in long time, increasing the amount of exposure per breath to tar.

Drug use in general is also on the rise. The proportion of college students using any illicit drug other than marijuana in the prior 12 months increased from the recent low point of 15 percent in 2008 to 21 percent in 2014. This increase is mostly attributable to an increased use of ecstasy and amphetamines.

But, like marijuana crowding out tobacco use, the increase in drug use on campus comes as binge drinking is on the decline. While 63 percent of college students in 2014 said that they have had an alcoholic beverage at least once in the prior 30 days, that figure is down from 67 percent in 2000, and down considerably from 82 percent in 1981.

Marijuana is also facing fewer legal restrictions across the US in recent years. Four states – Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado – and the District of Columbia have made pot legal. Sixteen other states have decriminalized the drug, and 23 have legalized cannabis use for medical purposes.