Blowin' Smoke

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New CDC analysis reveals demographics of nicotine addicts.

Tobacco has been the cause of uncounted hours of marketing strategy over the past several decades. Depending on the goal of the sponsor, advertisements, special events, and promotions have tried to convince adults that smoking is sexy and macho - or deadly and dangerous. Over the last half century, it seems like the anti-smoking forces have been the most effective: In 1965, 42 percent of adults aged 18 and over smoked, compared with 28 percent today. But that's not the whole story. Even though the number of current smokers is on the decline in the U.S., the number of consumers who have taken their turn with tobacco is substantial. And the demographics of smokers are also starting to change.

New analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta shows that approximately half of the population, or 135 million people, have had some experience with cigarettes. The report notes that more than 90 million Americans have smoked 100 or more cigarettes in their lifetime. Of this group, an estimated 45 million adults have quit.

Who smokes cigarettes today? According to CDC estimates, there are 47 million current cigarette smokers in the U.S. Male smokers slightly outnumber female smokers: 24.8 million men compared with 22.4 million women. Of current smokers, the vast majority (82.4 percent) smoke every day. The number of current smokers who partake in the vice only occasionally is much smaller (4.2 percent).

The portrait of a current smoker features a face far younger than the one just a decade ago, when the demographics of tobacco use started to change. Prior to 1998, adults aged 25 to 44 were the most likely to smoke. Today, the largest share of smokers are aged 18 to 24. "This may reflect the aging of the cohort of high school students, among whom current smoking rates were high during the 1990s," the report speculates. It also means that there are more adults aged 18 to 24 who are picking up the habit. Given these changes, the CDC recommends increased attention to preventing and eliminating smoking among younger adults, in addition to targeting teens and children with anti-smoking messages.

But while the age of smokers is starting to change, the racial or ethnic demographics of smoking remained stable between 1997 and 1998. Native Americans still have the highest participation rates - a whopping 40 percent of this group smokes. (The researchers note that there are cultural or religious uses of tobacco that may play a role in that number.) Non-Hispanic whites come in second, with 25 percent. Hispanics and Asians have the lowest smoking rates (see chart).

Economic status and level of education also influence the likelihood of smoking, according to the report. For instance, 32 percent of people who live below the poverty line smoke, compared with 24 percent of those who are not poor. People with less than a high school education are far more likely to smoke than those who are college educated, by a margin of 37 percent to 11.3 percent. These statistics have shown little change in the past decade.

People who live in different regions of the country also have different smoking habits, the CDC reveals. In a separate CDC analysis of 1999 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data, researchers discovered that smoking rates vary dramatically across states, ranging from a 13.9 percent smoking rate in Utah, to 31.5 percent in Nevada. Other states with a high prevalence of smoking include Kentucky and Ohio, while states with the lowest percentages of current smokers, in addition to Utah, include Hawaii, California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.

Overall, CDC data reveal that 4 in 10 current smokers wish they could stop. In 1998, about 15 million smokers tried to quit and said they gave it up for at least one day in an effort to do so. But the report doesn't say how many of them were able to kick butts for good.

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