Ex-Smokers (Not Non-Smokers) as Today’s Role Models

The anti-smoking movement has given high purpose to many people’s lives during the past decade. What it hasn’t done is significantly reduce the proportion of Americans who smoke. A new Gallup poll finds 24 percent of adults smoked in the week prior to being questioned—down a bit from 2001 (28 percent), up a shade from 1999 (23 percent) and marginally lower than the number saying so in 1990 (27 percent). One might have expected the incidence of smoking to drop significantly during those years in the absence of anti-tobacco exertions, merely because the population was skewing older. It didn’t happen, though, despite the fact that vast numbers of Americans have kicked the habit. Gallup finds “roughly one former smoker for every current smoker.” Ex-smokers far outnumber current smokers among people age 50 and up. Among 30-49-year-olds, smokers outnumber ex-smokers by a modest margin (27 percent vs. 22 percent). Only among 18-29-year-olds is the number of current smokers much bigger than that of ex-smokers (29 percent vs. 12 percent). In its analysis of the data, Gallup points to the populous ranks of former smokers as an “encouraging sign” for smokers who want to quit, as it surely is. Still, the ubiquity of ex-smokers must make it harder for the anti-smoking forces to persuade young folks that tobacco is horribly addictive. In a country full of reformed smokers, kids who plan to smoke like chimneys until age 30 and then clean up their act will see this as a perfectly feasible plan. Confirmed smokers know it’s not so easy. Seventy-nine percent of current smokers said they’d like to quit—down from 82 percent in 2000 but well above the 64 percent recorded in 1997. That exceeds the proportion of smokers who said the habit is “very harmful” (60 percent, though another 30 percent said it’s “somewhat harmful”). Fifty-four percent of smokers go through less than a pack a day, vs. 43 percent as recently as 1996. On the other hand, the proportion who smoke more than a pack a day has risen to 17 percent from a low of 9 percent in 1999 and 2000. The rest either said they smoke a pack a day or didn’t give an answer.