Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 1–24 | Cite as

Taking Play Seriously: Low-Level Smoking Among College Students

  • Peter StrombergEmail author
  • Mark Nichter
  • Mimi Nichter


Cigarettes have been socially engineered to become potent symbols. Therefore, they need to be understood as cultural products invested with cognitive and emotional salience as well as nicotine delivery devices engineered to create a population of dependent users. In this paper, we look at the symbolism of cigarettes, but unlike many researchers examining this topic, we attend as much to what tobacco users do with cigarettes as to what smoking means to them cognitively. Based on interviews with low-level smokers conducted on two college campuses, we suggest that students use tobacco in order to accomplish interactional goals and to structure social time and space that would otherwise be ambiguously defined. By conceptualizing this structuring activity as play, we gain valuable insights into early stages and trajectories of tobacco use among college students. Our conceptualization of smoking as play is not meant to trivialize low-level tobacco use. Much the opposite, we caution that the contexts in which low-level smoking takes place and the utility functions of such smoking must be taken seriously by researchers in light of current increases in tobacco use among college students.


smoking college students boredom drinking ethnography 



This research was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Research Network on the Etiology of Tobacco Dependence (TERN). The Oklahoma study also received support from the University of Tulsa Faculty Research Grant Program. We would like to thank Dr. Richard Clayton, Dr. Michael Nunley, and Dr. Ron Jepperson for comments on an early draft of this article. Thanks are due also to research assistants at the University of Arizona, including Nicole Taylor, Bryce Coughlin, Leah Stauber, and Derek Honeyman, and to Leslie Robinson, Athena Alexander, Michelle Singer, and Jeremy Forbis at the University of Tulsa.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of TulsaTulsaUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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