Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Presented at Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln, NE. April 2007. Also available at: (as MS PowerPoint .ppt file)


Previous research has reported that across the nation 29% of college students engage in cigarette smoking while four out of five students who have reported smoking in the past 30 days have also binge drank or used an illicit substance. In turn, 70% of students who described using an illicit substance in the past month have smoked cigarettes as well. Because the number of college students abusing substances continues to increase, the prevalence of both cigarette and illicit substance use denotes a major health concern.

Developed to explain the rate and onset of specific use patterns, the “gateway” hypothesis posits that individuals who use licit drugs (cigarettes or alcohol) are more likely to progress to illicit drug use later in life. While current smoking statusand the amount of cigarettes smoked per day have been predictive of the progression to illicit substances (i.e. marijuana, cocaine, crack, and heroin) across age strata, some inconsistencies exist maintaining cigarettes may not precede marijuana use. Further, research has reported that with earlier age of onset of licit drug use, individuals are the more likely to transition to illicit drug use although the differentiation between alcohol or cigarettes as well as the progression to specific illicit drugs has not been fully assessed.

A distinct but not mutually exclusive body of literature has reported that individuals who experience trauma are two times more likely to have current alcohol dependence and eight times more likely to be drug dependent compared to those without trauma exposure. With the majority of studies suggesting substance use is associated with an attempt to alleviate symptoms of trauma, most research indicates trauma exposure precedes substance use. However, the onset pattern of substance use, particularly the “gateway” hypothesis, has yet to be explored in individuals with trauma exposure.

The current study sought to assess the “gateway” hypothesis by examining the relationship between age of first cigarette and subsequent use of illicit substances in college. Additionally, a second aim of the current study was to explore the “gateway” hypothesis in individuals with previous trauma exposure.

It was hypothesized that age of first cigarette would predict current use patterns of illicit substances among college students. Further, this hypothesis was explored in individuals who self-reported varying levels of early trauma exposure.