U.S. Smoking Rate Still Coming Down

by Lydia Saad

About one in five American adults now smoke

PRINCETON, NJ -- The percentage of U.S. adults saying they smoked cigarettes in the past week, now 21%, is similar to what Gallup found in 2007. However, it represents a decline from earlier this decade, when between 22% and 28% said they smoked, and is among the lowest figures Gallup has recorded in more than six decades of polling on tobacco use in America.

More specifically, in three of the past four Gallup smoking measurements (conducted between July 2007 and today), only 20% or 21% of American adults have said they smoked cigarettes in the past week. Compared with the average of 25% who said they smoked from 2000 through 2006, this suggests a recent decline in U.S. smoking. (For the full trend, see the table elsewhere in this report.)

The latest result comes from Gallup's annual Consumption Habits survey, conducted July 10-13, 2008.

Self-reported adult smoking peaked in 1954 at 45%, and remained at 40% or more through the early 1970s, but has since gradually declined. The average rate of smoking across the decades fell from 40% in the 1970s to 32% in the 1980s, 26% in the 1990s, and 24% since 2000.

A Youthful Habit

Cigarette smoking is more prevalent among younger adults (18 to 49 years) than among older adults and seniors, something Gallup has seen consistently over the years. Thirty percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 26% of those 30 to 49 say they had a cigarette in the past week. This contrasts with only 17% of those 50 to 64 and 9% of those 65 and older.

A major reason for the difference in smoking rates by age is that many older Americans have quit the habit. For nearly every current smoker in the 30- to 49-year age bracket, there is another who says he or she used to smoke. Among those 50 to 64, the ratio of former smokers to current smokers is nearly 2-to-1, while among those 65 and older it swells to more than 5-to-1.

As a result, a greater proportion of seniors have "ever" smoked (56%), compared with young adults (42%).

Presumably, the older age brackets would include even more current and former smokers relative to the younger age brackets, if not for the disproportionately higher rate of deaths among older Americans because of tobacco use.

Never Too Young to Quit?

The difficulty of quitting smoking is evident in the finding that two in three current smokers consider themselves "addicted" to cigarettes. An even greater number -- 74% -- say they would like to give up smoking, but have not.

Young smokers could find quitting easier now than when they are older. According to Gallup smoking trends since 2005, while 18- to 29-year-olds are about as likely as those 30 to 64 to say they would like to give up smoking (and more likely than those 65 and older), younger smokers are much less likely than older generations of smokers to consider themselves addicted (58% vs. 78% to 79%).

Additionally, young adults smoke an average of 11 cigarettes a day, or about half a pack. This rises to about 15 cigarettes a day among those 30 and older -- a potentially important difference.

Bottom Line

Smoking rates have been coming down for about the past quarter century, and recent Gallup polling suggests they have continued to drop in just the past few years. About one in five Americans today say they smoke cigarettes, down from about one in four at the start of the decade.

Although most smokers feel they are addicted to cigarettes, that fact that so many older adults have reportedly succeeded in quitting should give young smokers who want to quit the encouragement to try.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,016 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 10-13, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 184 smokers, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±8 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 832 nonsmokers, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Results based on the aggregate of 2005 to 2008 polls include interviews with 982 adults who say they smoked cigarettes in the past week, including 117 respondents aged 18 to 29, 293 aged 30 to 49, 256 aged 50 to 64, and 103 aged 65 and older. The polls combined for this aggregate were conducted July 10-13, 2008; July 12-15, 2007; July 6-9, 2006; and July 7-10, 2005.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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