The percentage of adults who smoked cigarettes in the United States fell to a historic low last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. However, e-cigarettes are becoming even more popular.
About 11% of adults told the CDC last year that they were current cigarette smokers, according to the latest preliminary data from the National Health Interview Survey, a biannual survey that provides general information about health-related topics. The survey includes responses from 27,000 people age 18 and older. In 2020 and 2021, about 12.5% of adults said they smoked cigarettes.
This is a significant drop from when surveys like these started. Surveys of Americans in the 1940s found that about half of all adults said they smoked cigarettes. Rates began to decline in the 1960s, and more recently, in 2016, 15.5% of adults said they smoked cigarettes.
Recent studies have shown some groups are still at higher risk. While the latest CDC survey doesn’t capture this level of detail, cigarette smoking rates among some communities – including Native Americans, Alaska Natives and members of the LGBTQ community remain “alarmingly high” according to the 2023 State of Tobacco Control report from the American Lung Association.
The general drop in cigarette smoking among adults should have a positive impact on public health.
Cigarette smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death and disability in the US. So many people have died from smoking, the CDC finds, that more than 10 times as many US citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the US.
Smokers are 90% of the lung cancer cases in the United States, but smoking can also cause someone to have a stroke, coronary heart disease, and COPD, as well as other cancers including bladder, colon, kidney, liver, stomach and other cancers. People who live with smokers also are at a greater risk of death, because of secondhand smoke.
This latest survey does not capture why fewer people smoked cigarettes, but the number has been on the decline since the 1960s, after the US surgeon general released the first report on smoking and health that concluded that smoking causes serious health problems.
Experts credit a variety of efforts for the decline in cigarette smoking – anti-smoking campaigns, programs that educate children about the danger of smoking, laws that severely restrict where people could smoke and where cigarette companies could advertise, as well as better access to smoking cessation programs and higher taxes that make cigarettes expensive.
However, Congress hasn’t raised federal tobacco taxes in 14 years. The federal cigarette tax remains $1.01 per pack, and taxes vary for other tobacco products. No state increased its cigarette taxes in 2022.
The pandemic may also have had an influence. Smokers were much more vulnerable to the severe consequences of Covid-19 and that gave some people the extra motivation they needed to quit – and may have given doctors the extra motivation they needed to help them too, according to Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a volunteer medical spokesperson with the American Lung Association. At some level, the pandemic also made the medical establishment easier to access.
“The pandemic, I think, really allowed physicians time they never probably had in the past to conduct these telemedicine visits that were appropriate just for smoking cessation strategies, helping them help patients quit and stay quit,” said Galiatsatos, who is a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician and is director of the Tobacco Treatment Clinic with Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Galiatsatos points to the US Surgeon General report released during the Trump administration, just prior to the start of the pandemic. The report detailed that of the patients they have now that smoke, the few that are left are going to be the most resistant to quitting. Then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams’ report encouraged more doctors to help their patients quit. The report found that 40% of smokers are not routinely told by their doctors to stop.
Still, the culture has changed. Smoking is much less socially acceptable in some cultures in the US.
E-cigarette use, though, seems to be more socially acceptable, especially among younger people studies show, and that may explain why those numbers are up.
The current survey found that e-cigarette use rose to nearly 6% last year, that’s up from about 4.9% the year before.
Some argue that e-cigarettes are a good substitute for regular cigarettes, and in some countries they are even promoted as a smoking cessation devices, but the CDC says that “e-cigarettes are not safe for youth, young adults, and pregnant women, as well as adults who do not currently use tobacco products.”
A BMJ study published in February found that people who used e-cigarettes to quit smoking found them to be less helpful than more traditional smoking cessation aids.
The US Food and Drug Administration says there is not enough evidence to support claims that these products are effective tools to help people quit smoking. None are approved for this purpose. The FDA says there are no safe tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, vapes, and other electronic nicotine delivery systems.
“I always hold no stigma or judgment when anyone wants to smoke a traditional cigarette or use electronic cigarettes, but as a lung doctor, I will always promote only air to come into the lungs,” said Galiatsatos. “From my standpoint, I think we should still have a public health mindset around e-cigarette usage because for some individuals, they’re going to have health consequences from this product.”
He said people may choose to vape instead of smoke cigarettes, but clinicians should be prepared to help this population if they do want to quit.
E-cigarettes can, though, produce a number of chemicals that are not good for human health, including acrolein, acetaldehyde, and formaldehyde. Studies show these chemicals are known as aldehydes and can cause lung and heart disease, according to the American Lung Association.
Among teens, nicotine exposure can harm the developing brain, according to the US surgeon general.
E-cigarettes are much more popular than cigarettes among teens, so the adult e-cigarette user numbers will likely continue to grow.
About 14% of high school students said they used e-cigarettes, and 2% of high school students smoked cigarettes last year, according to separate CDC data.
The rate of kids that use e-cigarettesis high, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.
Specifically, in 2022, nearly 5% of middle school and about 17% of high school students reported some form of current tobacco use, according to CDC data from an earlier survey. In 2021, about 11% of middle schoolers and 34% of high schoolers said they had ever tried tobacco.
These “try rates” are important because most adult smokers started at young ages, according to the CDC.
The AAP continues to encourage pediatricians to screen for tobacco use as part of a child’s regular checkup. A talk about tobacco should start no later than age 11 or 12, the report says.
For adult smokers, the CDC encourages encourages people to call 1-800-QUIT-NOW where people can get free confidential coaching. The government also offers free online resources and even text programs that can help people quit.