Despite decades of research on the negative effects of smoking and secondhand smoke, millions of people worldwide continue to light up on a regular basis and large numbers of young people adopt the habit each year. In recent years, smoking rates seem to have plateaued at a similar level -- around 25% to 30% -- in each of three countries: the United States, Canada and Great Britain.
In recent surveys, respondents in the United States and Canada were asked if they had smoked in the past week. Twenty-eight percent of Canadians* responded affirmatively, while in the United States** a slightly smaller percentage (24%) said they had smoked in the past week.
In a Gallup survey of British residents***, participants were asked if they considered themselves heavy, average, light, social, ex- or nonsmokers. Twenty-nine percent defined themselves as heavy, average, light or social smokers, while 63% reported that they were nonsmokers and 8% said that they were ex-smokers. Comparing the smoking habits across these three countries, Canadians' and Britons' smoking habits appear very similar, while Americans are smoking slightly less.
Smoking by Age Category
Many anti-smoking campaigns have been geared toward preventing young people from lighting up in the first place. In the United States, however, more than a third (37%) of those who currently smoke report that they began smoking before they were 16 years old. Another 29% began smoking between the ages of 16 and 18, indicating that a full two-thirds (66%) of current smokers in the United States began smoking before age 18.
Furthermore, despite the current high-profile campaigns to discourage teen smoking, almost half of younger smokers (those between the ages of 18 and 29) say they started smoking before they were 16, the highest proportion of any age category. This suggests that smokers now take up the habit at a younger age than in previous generations. In Canada, those in the youngest age category (18 to 29) are the most likely to be current smokers. Thirty-eight percent of Canadian smokers are between the ages of 18 and 29. In the United States, 30% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they smoke, which is the highest among any age category.
Health Risks of Smoking and Secondhand Smoke
The vast majority of Americans overall (87%) believe that secondhand smoke is very or somewhat harmful to adults. Most American smokers themselves feel that secondhand smoke is harmful, though they are less likely than nonsmokers to think so: 76% of smokers (including 31% who say it is very harmful) agree that secondhand smoke is harmful to adults, compared to 90% of nonsmokers (among whom 64% believe it is very harmful).
A majority of smokers in Great Britain are also willing to concede that smoking is harmful. Seventy-six percent of British smokers feel that their smoking puts them at risk for lung cancer, 63% feel they're at risk for tongue and mouth cancer. Among Americans, 72% say smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, and 11% say it is a minor cause.
Smoking in Society
In North America, more and more public places have been legally designated "smoke-free." When Gallup asked U.S. smokers if they feel unjustly discriminated against as a result of increased restrictions on smoking in public places, or if they feel the restrictions are justified, a majority of smokers (58%) answered that the restrictions are justified, while 39% said they feel unjustly discriminated against.
In Great Britain, almost half (49%) of respondents indicated that they find smoking in others unattractive, while none said they found smoking in others attractive.
Despite long-term trends showing marked reduction in smoking levels, about one in four people in the United States, Canada and Great Britain still smoke. In recent years, efforts to deter young people from beginning a lifelong smoking habit do not seem to be an overwhelming success. It speaks to the powerful addictive nature of nicotine that, although most smokers themselves believe that the habit poses a threat to their own health and the health of those around them, they continue to indulge in it.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,003 Canadian respondents, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 21-27, 2002. For results based on the total sample of Canadian respondents, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.
**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 U.S. respondents, aged 18 and older, conducted July 9-11, 2002. For results based on the total sample of U.S. respondents, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.
***Results are based on telephone interviews with 2,126 residents of Great Britain, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 26-Feb. 6, 2000. For results based on the total sample of British respondents, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2.2%.