Cigarettes’ Last Gasp

Smoking may be all the rage in nostalgia shows like Mad Men. But over the last 10 years Americans of all ages have left cigarettes behind in a puff of smoke.

Jon Furniss/Invision/AP

Young people today. They’re abandoning cars, soda. And they’re really abandoning cigarettes. Smoking, which used to be one of the iconic acts of youthful rebellion, has rapidly faded from fashion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, a mere 18 percent of adults (age 18 or older) smoked cigarettes in 2012, and only 18.1 percent of high-school students did. Among middle-school children, the number now stands at 4.3 percent.

That’s down sharply in the past decade. In 2000, the comparable figures stood at 27.9 percent for high-school students and 10.7 percent for middle-school children. From 2005 to 2010, the percentage of individuals in the age group 18-24 who smoke dropped from 24.4 percent to 20.1 percent. Cigarette companies are clearly losing market share among up-and-coming consumers.

According to Gallup, while smoking rates are not dropping across the board as precipitously as they did in the ’80s and ’90s, there’s one demographic slice in which the decline is still significant. Whereas young adults (ages 18-29) once had the highest rate of all age groups, they are now on par with those in the age bracket of 30 to 64.

Not only are fewer people smoking, but among people who smoke, the frequency has plummeted. Only 1 percent of smokers say they smoke more than one pack a day, and the portion of smokers who say they use less than one pack per day has risen from 55 percent in 2000, to 68 percent in 2012.

The U.S. cigarette industry is clearly in decline. In 2011, 293 billion cigarettes were sold in the U.S. That’s down from 351.6 billion in 2005. As a result, some U.S. tobacco farmers are switching their farms to grow chickpeas for hummus, reflecting a literal change in taste.

So what exactly has caused this statistically significant, consistent drop in cigarette smoking rates among the young?

There’s the hefty price tag. Millennials have matured in an age of austerity, slack job markets, and low wages. The high federal cigarette tax ($1.01 a pack) as well as potentially huge state taxes ($4.35 a pack in New York) make smoking an extremely expensive habit.

But the cost of cigarettes alone is not likely the main source. Over half of smokers are from low-income backgrounds. Despite the rising cost of smoking, the rates at which lower-income Americans (i.e., those most likely to be price-sensitive) smoke have not declined significantly.

Psychological forces seem to be at play. Young people, like their elders, have been exposed to relentless media advertising that highlights the negative health consequences of smoking. Meanwhile, laws that ban smoking in many places have stigmatized the practice.

According to Gallup, nearly 75 percent of smokers say they have tried to quit in the past year. And, of former smokers surveyed by Gallup, health was cited most often as the reason for quitting.

In addition, laws banning smoking in restaurants, schools, and public places have largely succeeded in ostracizing smokers to the point where it is seen socially as undesirable. According to William Shadel, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, these laws banning smoking “seem to have had the effect of making smoking less socially acceptable in the U.S.”

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As the number of cigarette smokers decreased over the past few decades, and the availability of acceptable places to smoke dwindled, it created “negative smoking norms [that] may have prevented kids from starting to smoke and may have helped to motivate adult smokers to quit,” says Shadel. In the Gallup poll, 17 percent of those surveyed cited some factor related to stigma (such as saying it was disgusting or that they were doing it for their friends) as a reason to quit smoking.

In fact, over the past five years, the number of people who want to ban smoking outright has doubled, from 12 percent to 22 percent.

While television and movies used to glamorize smoking, now American audiences have passed through multiple decades filled with countless news stories about the dangers of smoking. TV has become so cigaretteless that even the Parents Television Council is applauding.

It is interesting to note that on The Newsroom—one of the most popular shows on HBO, a channel notorious for social taboo (incest, gratuitous violence and nudity, etc.)—the only person who consistently lights up is the fussy, pedantic, aloof (and older) host of the show.

Even convenience stores treat the purchase of cigarettes as an illicit act. Cigarettes are kept behind the counter (where not even alcohol, once banned by a constitutional amendment, is relegated) and have to show ID in order to buy.

The stigma attached to blowing smoke in the vicinity of other people has led to the surge in popularity recently of e-cigarettes. In a recent New York Times article about e-cigarettes, one man said he turned to the e-cigarettes because “for 10 years, I’ve been feeling like a pariah.”

“It is clear that states and localities that have more comprehensive tobacco policies,” says Shadel of the RAND Institute, “policies that include high cigarette taxes, extensive mass-media campaigns, school-based prevention programs, clean air laws, etc. have more reduced smoking rates in adults and kids compared to those that have less comprehensive programs.” So, while programs like D.A.R.E. may generate snickers, a multifaceted approach confronts people with a variety of reasons to either never pick up cigarettes or finally put them down for good.

And what are kids these days doing instead? Well, one need only look at the rising rates of marijuana usage as well as the favorable headlines it has engendered lately (Sanjay Gupta!) to guess what young adults might be using instead. Even in the Showtime series Weeds, a fictitious tobacco company looked to pot as its future growth industry.