It happens like this: Bryce Thalackal is at a house party, and his friend is going outside to smoke. He does not know anyone else at the party, and he doesn't want to be alone, so Bryce goes, too. Does he want a cigarette? He knows it's bad for him, but so is drinking and he does that already, doesn't he?
So it happens. Bryce, a sophomore at the University of South Florida, smokes his first cigarette. He is surprised by how quickly it hits him but even more by how much he likes it, how warm and relaxed it makes him feel, here at this party, blocks from where he studies science.
He starts smoking more often, just the cigarettes handed to him at parties and bars, at first, until he starts to crave it. Then he is pointing past cashiers, asking for Camel Filters.
This is how a young, educated adult starts to smoke cigarettes in an era when the dangers have never been so well known.
Last week, a ban on smoking took hold at USF Tampa as thousands of students returned to a campus that was, for the first time, completely tobacco-free.
The university is the last of its size in the state to remove tobacco from campus. The University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Miami and the University of Central Florida all have banned smoking in recent years, as have USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee. The University of North Florida's ban on tobacco began last fall.
As cigarette use has declined rapidly since the 1960s, and even significantly in the last few years, the public perception is that young people aren't smoking anymore while older, long-addicted smokers are aging out of the population.
In reality, young adults in Florida between 18 and 24 are almost as likely to smoke cigarettes as their parents, and twice as likely as their grandparents. About 16 percent of these young Floridians smoked cigarettes in 2013, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control.
Young adults are aware of the dangers of smoking; but as they choose to pick up the habit anyway, universities are trying to steer them away with all-out tobacco bans.
"There's a common misconception among college smokers that they're social smokers — that they don't really smoke, and it'll be a habit they can break," said Beverly Daly, USF's director for environmental health and safety. "But what they often find is life after college is much harder than life in college, and they'll find they became addicted to smoking when all that time in college they thought they were just a social smoker."
Young adults are the most coveted demographic for the tobacco industry, which hopes to nab life-long smokers loyal to their brand by holding events at bars and parties close to college campuses, according to Brian King, deputy director for research translation in CDC's Office on Smoking and Health.
But why, when the dangers of smoking are so well-proven and publicized, are young people still picking up the cigarette and the habit?
Six student smokers said in interviews they were all very familiar with why tobacco was bad for them. But they said they already did things that were not necessarily good for them, such as drinking; that it was a stress reliever and a study break; and that it was a good way to connect with other students.
"It's a stress release kind of thing," said Cody Krukauskas, a 20-year-old junior studying computer engineering at USF. He started smoking when drinking on weekends, but it's now his daily routine. "It's kind of nice, every two hours, taking a break from studying in the library and coming outside together, taking a cigarette break."
"We have a lot of stress from class, so sometimes we have to smoke," said Anastasiia Utiuzh, 22. She began smoking a year ago, when she first came to USF to earn her master's degree in mass media. "I've met a lot of friends in the smoking area."
In 2012, USF confined smoking to designated areas of its Tampa campus while the administration increased resources for quitting tobacco, including coaching and offering nicotine patches.
Daly said the plan was always to transition to get rid of smoking entirely. "Students are attracted to a smoke-free campus environment," she said. "We want to position them for success after they've graduated, and this will be an effort toward that, especially since many employers have adopted smoke- and tobacco-free policies as well."
At least 20 colleges and universities across Florida have banned all forms of tobacco on campus, according to the state's health department.
As is the case at USF, most of the bans are "peer-enforced." Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to approach anyone they see smoking on campus and ask them to stop. Those caught repeatedly smoking could be reported to the student rights and responsibilities office or, in the case of faculty and staff offenders, to their supervisor. University administrators declined to specify any penalties these write-ups would bring.
Amy Magnuson, director of health promotion at FSU, said the smoking ban enacted two years ago has worked well. Magnuson said she has approached smokers and asked them to put out their cigarettes without any issue, and that to her knowledge, no one has been formally punished for smoking on campus.
It's not that no one ever smokes at FSU: "I'm not going to say that!" Magnuson laughed. "But it's pretty rare. Anecdotally, when I walk around campus, if I do see someone smoking, I'm like, 'Whoa, that's strange.' "
As they returned to campus last week after semester break, many USF students wondered how effective the ban would be.
On one hand, more than a dozen students could be seen smoking Monday on the side of the library near the recycling bins. Utiuzh was sharing a bench and a light with Marina Orlova, a 20-year-old senior. Krukauskas ashed his cigarette into an empty Mountain Dew bottle, already hosting three butts at 11 a.m. A few feet away, Chris Hackett was "vaping," inhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette. (The vapor, which contains nicotine but not tobacco, is included in the ban.)
"I'm not crazy into the ban," said Hackett, a 20-year-old junior studying computer engineering. "I think it's crazy."
Over at USF St. Petersburg, where smoking was already outlawed, senior Kevin O'Hara said he and others smoke on campus every day. Few "blatantly smoke in the quad," opting to duck behind buildings or under trees.
"I haven't seen it enforced really, and I haven't really seen anyone stopping it on campus," O'Hara said.
But in Tampa, many students want to see smoking done and gone.
"I live on campus and I can't open my window without three people smoking," said Justin Sommers, a 20-year-old sophomore studying health sciences. "The smell is disgusting."
Stephanie Ramirez, a 19-year-old freshman, said she thinks about the health problems her grandmother suffered from smoking most of her life. She doesn't like to be around second-hand smoke.
"I know it will be a lot of inconvenience for people," said Ramirez, who is studying integrative animal biology, "but for other people, it'll be really good, because we won't have to put up with it."
And then there is Bryce Thalackal, who smoked his first cigarette so he wouldn't be alone at a house party.
His friends said it was nasty, bad for him. His teeth were turning yellow.
But it was USF's smoking ban that made him quit.
"Most of my tobacco use was on campus," said Bryce, a 21-year-old junior studying microbiology. "It didn't make sense to keep smoking."
He doesn't remember his last cigarette, but he thinks it must have been during finals week, at the library, and anyway, he threw out the pack.
When the cravings hit, he went to play basketball with his friends. He winded easily, couldn't run too much. But he kept at it, and it got better, and that is how a young, educated adult quit smoking.
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.