Smoking Rates Continue to Decline

The CDC recently updated its statistics about current cigarette smoking among adults. In its MMWR article of November 28, 2014, it tracked changes in smoking between 2005 and 2013. In general, the trends of previous years continued. Here are some of the results:

  • The proportion of U.S. adults who smoke declined from 20.9% to 17.8%, a 15% decline during that period. The 17.8% is a modern low in adult smoking prevalence.
  • The proportion of daily smokers declined from 16.9% to 13.7%, a 19% decline and another all time low.
  • Among daily smokers, the proportion who smoked at least one pack per day decreased from 52.1% to 36.4%, a 30% decline. And daily smokers now average 14.2 cigarettes, down from 16.7, a 15% decline.

Thus, there has been a decline in overall smokers, a slightly greater decline in daily smokers and in number of cigarettes smoked by daily smokers, and a major decline in the number of cigarettes consumed by daily smokers.

The profile of smokers is relatively unchanged:

  • Men (20.5%) are more likely to be smokers than women (15.3%)
  • Smoking prevalence is higher among adults aged 25-44 years (20.1%) and lowest among those over age 65 (8.8%)
  • Among ethnic groups, multiple race groups had the highest rates (26.8%), followed by American Indian/Native Alaskan (26.1%), Whites (19.4%), Blacks (18.3%), Hispanics (12.1%), and Asians (9.6%).
  • Smokers continue to be stratified by education level, often used as a marker for social class. Those without a high school diploma had smoking rates of 24.2%, followed by those with high school diplomas (22%), undergraduate college degrees (9.1%), and graduate degrees (5.6%). Those who obtained General Education Development (GED) certificates in lieu of high school graduation had the highest rates (41.4%). It is likely that many of these persons were incarcerated and thus also had medical conditions associated with high smoking rates, such as mental illness and substance use disorders.
  • Persons living below the federal poverty level had higher rates (29.2%) than those above that level (16.2%).
  • LGB adults were more likely to be smokers (26.6%) than straight adults (17.6%).

Thus, the trend of smoking to be concentrated among the less educated, the poor, and the LGB population continued. Not included in this report, but summarized previously by a special MMWR are recent data documenting the much higher rates among persons with behavioral health issues, the groups with the highest smoking rates in the entire population. Notably, those working in the health professions in the United States have some of the lowest smoking rates in the world, with some surveys showing that only 1% of physicians are smokers.

This new report should encourage us that progress, indeed, is happening. But, the slow rate of decline, in the face of all the evidence about the harms of smoking and the accumulating tobacco control policies such as taxes, clean indoor air laws, counter-marketing, and coverage for smoking cessation therapies, is sobering. As smokers increasingly resemble members of marginalized parts of the American community, the risk is that resources for tobacco control will be diverted to other causes. Yet, over 40 million people still smoke, including many of the most vulnerable of us. And close to 500,000 people die each year from smoking-associated illnesses. We need to capture better the sense of urgency buried in those statistics.

Finally, it is important to recognize two new potential threats to the health of the nation—electronic cigarettes and marijuana. Right now the rhetoric about the benefits and harms of these two commodities outstrips the evidence. We do know that the use of the e-cigarette is climbing, and it is highly likely that marijuana use is also increasing in the wake of state legalization efforts. We also know that because these commodities contain immense potential for profit, marketing efforts to promote usage are certain to increase. As we continue our efforts against the harm from using combustible tobacco, we need to track the use of these new potential threats, as well as to assemble evidence about what happens to those who use them.