Our Stories

Megan Flora: The Skinny on Smoking

Megan Flora '05 loved Ecuador. She didn't love all the young people smoking. She decided to find out why they smoke - and do something about it.

Flora, a senior exercise science major, had traveled the summer before her junior year to Ecuador. She fell in love with the food, the music, the art and, most of all, the people. But she was disturbed by the prevalence of cigarette smoking.

"As a non-smoker, the prevalence of smoking in public places was really apparent to me," she says. "If you go into an Internet café or other public place, you always end up sitting next to someone who's smoking. I was especially struck by the number of young people in Ecuador who smoke."

She was determined to find out how young Ecuadorians view cigarette smoking and why they smoke. To fund her research, she received a prestigious Carson Undergraduate Research Grant. The $3,000 stipend is designed to encourage students to pursue original research or areas of study outside the classroom.

"In the United States, statistically speaking, the more educated and affluent people are, the less they smoke," she explains. "I wanted to see if that held true in Ecuador."

She studied three groups of 50 university students: from a lower middle-class public school where tuition averages $165 per semester; from a middle-class private school where tuition averages $1,600 per semester; and from an elite, upper-class private school where tuition averages $4,000 per semester. "The groups' education levels were similar - averaging 16 years - but their socio-economic levels were quite different," she says. "I wanted to see if their motivations for smoking differed."

She designed a survey of 30 questions to capture students' demographic information and student views on smoking. She asked questions about when they started smoking; how long they'd smoked; and whether or not their friends were smokers. She also asked questions like "If someone of the opposite sex is a smoker, do you find that unattractive?" and open-ended essay questions like "Why do you smoke?"

She traveled to Quito, Ecuador, and spent two weeks surveying the students and another five weeks taking classes and traveling. At the upper-class school, the University of San Francisco, she arranged with university professors to visit classes to survey the students. The arrangements, conducted via email while Flora was still in the United States, were cumbersome and involved lots of red tape. "It was frustrating. Any type of research on campus has to receive the research institutional board's approval, which takes months. The university professors were great about letting me come into their classes, but it was very hard to contact them."

When she first arrived in Quito, she wondered if she'd taken on more than she could handle. "I showed up and wasn't sure where to go, who to talk with and whether what I was doing was culturally acceptable or not. Although I can get by, I'm not fluent in Spanish. I struggled with the language, wishing I could express myself better."

She surveyed five classes at the University of San Francisco through pre-arranged appointments. At the next two schools, she took a less formal approach. "I knew a couple of students at the schools and they took me around. "I approached students in courtyards and other public places, explained what I was doing and asked them to fill out the surveys."

Flora was amazed at how receptive the Ecuadorian students were to her. "The students were really interested in what I was doing. I didn't expect them to be so open to me and the survey. I asked personal questions about their habits, beliefs and attitudes, yet every student I approached was willing to participate. They were also really patient with my Spanish and I was able to have conversations with several of them."

She was also surprised by the survey results. More than half the students she surveyed identified themselves as smokers - 53 percent in the upper class, 54 percent in the lower class and a whopping 61 percent of the middle class said they'd smoked 1 to 20 cigarettes in the previous 30 days.

While all the groups had a preponderance of smokers, they differed by socio-economic class in why they smoke. "In the upper classes in Ecuador, smoking is considered very fashionable. The students from the elite university smoke to be in style, to look good. For the middle class students, smoking is definitely associated with socializing. They smoke with their friends. One of these students said, "I smoke to have good conversation." The lower class students seem to use cigarettes to cope, to get through the day. They said they smoke to relax, to cope with stress."

As part of her senior thesis, she's creating an anti-smoking campaign targeted to each group's smoking motivations. "I'd tailor the anti-smoking message to the upper class on the fashion idea. The bad breath and smelling clothes that go with smoking are never in style. For the lower class, I'd focus on the negative effects of smoking on the body, especially later in life. Since the middle class associates smoking with friends and socializing, I might do something like the yellow anti-cancer bracelets that would say something like, 'Give hope not cancer to your friends.'"

One of the best parts of Flora's Ecuadorian adventure has been getting clear about her career direction. "I want to go into public relations with an emphasis on health," says Flora, who plans to attend graduate school next year at Colorado State. "Smoking is a health issue and finding out about the people affected by it and designing a campaign to address the issue is a public relations challenge. My Carson project has been the perfect bridge between the two."