Rise of the Former Smoker

Anti-smoking campaigners must have somewhat mixed feelings about the proliferation of former smokers — a cohort that outnumbers current smokers, according to the latest federal statistics. Analyzing data gathered in the first half of last year, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds 21.6 percent of adults identifying themselves as former smokers, vs. 20 percent saying they’re current smokers. The other 58.4 percent said they’ve never smoked. Men have a higher likelihood than women of being current smokers (22.7 percent vs. 17.4 percent), but they’re also more likely to be former smokers (25.1 percent vs. 18.3 percent).

No doubt Big Tobacco’s tormentors are glad to see that so many people have escaped the industry’s dangerous embrace. But the fact that there are more former than current smokers also makes it harder to convincingly depict smoking as a powerful addiction from which few people manage to rescue themselves. The number of adult current smokers is down from 24.7 percent as recently as 1997, and not all of those who kicked the habit did so by kicking the bucket.

It likely says something about the health effects of tobacco that current smokers are comparatively rare in the 65-and-older population (9.6 percent of the men, 7.5 percent of the women). The gender gap is proportionally a bit wider among 18-44-year-olds who smoke (26.1 percent of men, 19.4 percent of women), but narrows among 45-64-year-olds (22.9 percent of men, 19.9 percent of women).

In a breakdown of the data by race and ethnicity, roughly similar numbers of non-Hispanic blacks and whites identified themselves as current smokers — 19.4 percent and 22.3 percent, respectively. But the proportion of Hispanic adults identified as current smokers is dramatically lower, at 13.3 percent.