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Smoking and Drinking in America Today

Smoking and Drinking in America Today

Gallup's annual Consumption poll, conducted in July of each year, provides fascinating updates on Americans' smoking and drinking habits as well as both smokers' and non-smokers' attitudes toward these two activities. We have been presenting the results on in recent days, and will be presenting more results going forward. Meanwhile, here are nine insights into the American public's relationships with smoking and drinking that I think are particularly interesting.

1. There is not as much correlation between smoking and drinking as you might have imaged. About 20% of American adults smoke, and 64% have occasion to use alcoholic beverages. But the percentage of drinkers among smokers is just 70%, not that much higher than the national average. Looked at the other way, about 23% of those who drink smoke cigarettes -- again, not that much different than the national average. These results suggest that these two habits are relatively orthogonal to one another; that is, the social and psychological forces at play that lead Americans to smoke and to drink are relatively independent of one another.

2. Drinkers are most likely to drink alcohol on the weekend, particularly Saturday, and least likely to drink on Monday. This may not come as a great shock to those who assume weekend is the time for recreation, pleasure, and revelry, but the data confirm that many drinkers use alcohol on an occasional basis rather than as a daily, habituated behavior.

We derived these estimates from an analysis conducted by my colleague Lydia Saad of over 10,000 interviews conducted over the past decade or so in which drinkers were asked when they had last had a drink of alcohol. The percent who say "within the last 24 hours" rises to its peak in interviews conducted on Sunday, suggesting that Saturday is the big drinking day. The numbers are also high on interviews conducted on Friday, and lowest on interviews conducted on Tuesday, suggesting that Monday is the driest day of the week.

3. Americans are more likely to say it's OK to charge smokers more for health insurance than it is to refuse to hire smokers because they smoke. The precise numbers are 58% who say OK to charging more for health insurance and 14% say OK for refusing to hire smokers. The latter is not a totally uncommon occurrence. The famous Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation's best hospital and medical complexes, will not hire smokers, a policy now in place in other hospitals around the country as well. But the average American does not agree with the policy. Americans in general are leery of employee discrimination practices. Not shockingly, smokers are even less likely to agree. The majority agreement with charging smokers more for health insurance may stem from association with the well-established practice of charging smokers more for life insurance.

4. Along these same lines, few Americans -- 19% -- favor the idea of making smoking totally illegal in the U.S. This may stem in part from a general attitude Americans hold against banning anything totally -- including smoking, abortion, and owning guns. This, in turn, may stem from Americans' views of how impractical it is to attempt to ban things, as witnessed by the attempt at prohibition from 1920 to 1933, and the thriving businesses that operate in America today in and around the distribution and sale of illegal drugs.

5. Mormons and Jews in America today share at least one thing in common -- they have the lowest smoking rates of any religious groups in the U.S. The highest smoking rates are among Americans who have no religious identity ("nones"), among those who identify with a non-Christian religion other than Judaism or Islam, and among Muslims. Religiosity per se is also related to smoking: 11% of those who are very religious smoke, compared with 27% of those who are unreligious (based on Jan.-June, 2014 data).

6. Wine is clearly the adult beverage of choice for highly educated Americans. There are very few drinkers whose favorite beverage is wine among those with high school educations or less (15%). On the other hand, a robust 49% of Americans with postgraduate educations prefer wine. Wine is also decidedly the beverage of choice among women, and older Americans -- and those living in the East. Republicans are modestly more likely to prefer wine than Democrats.

7. Smoking follows the exact opposite pattern. Smoking is just as downscale as wine preference is upscale. Only 6% of Americans with postgraduate education say that they smoke, compared with 27% of those with high school or less (based on Jan.-June 2014 data). There just aren't a lot of Ph.D.s out there who smoke. Why is smoking so relatively rare among those with higher levels of education? One assumes that with education comes knowledge, and that with knowledge comes more recognition of the harmful effects of smoking. There may also be stronger normative controls in place that affect the behavior of those with higher levels of education, making it more socially disruptive to smoke in these settings. Those controls to some degree represent a circular effect. Less-well-educated Americans associate with other less-well-educated Americans who are more likely to smoke, making smoking more of an acceptable business and social behavior. Americans with more education tend to associate with other Americans of similar educational attainment, making smoking more of a socially and professionally opprobrious behavior.

8. The City of Philadelphia is attempting to get the Pennsylvania state legislature to approve a new law that would add $2 to each pack of cigarettes sold in Philadelphia. The major objective of this law is to raise revenues that can be used to help save the extremely cash-starved Philadelphia public school system. But another benefit of raising taxes on cigarettes is supposed to be the negative impact on smoking rates. Of course, that is a Catch-22 in some ways. If higher taxes help to reduce smoking, the less revenue accrues from those taxes. (Plus, of course, in a city like Philadelphia surrounded by suburbs, it is easy for smokers to go over the line and buy their smokes outside the city limits.) At any rate, self-reports from smokers themselves suggest that such taxes really won't affect their behavior as much as might be imagined. Only 26% of smokers say that increased taxes cause them to smoke less. Smokers may not recognize the degree to which higher costs might impact their behavior, of course, and a higher cost might help deter young nonsmokers from taking up the habit. Smokers, by the way, are just as likely to deny that restrictions on smoking cause them to smoke less.

9. How do smokers react when asked by a survey interviewer to say how harmful smoking is to one's health? This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance -- the stress that would be caused by smokers holding in their minds the cognition that they smoke along with the cognition that smoking is extremely harmful to one's health. It appears that smokers handle this dissonance by tending to admit that smoking is harmful to their health, but downgrading the degree of that harm. The question wording gives respondents the opportunity to say that smoking is very, somewhat, not very, or not at all harmful to their health. A very high 88% of nonsmokers say that smoking is very harmful to their health, with only 9% saying it is somewhat harmful (and 2% saying it is not very or not at all harmful). By contrast, 47% of smokers say very harmful, while 41% load themselves into the "somewhat" harmful category. Only 8% of smokers go so far as to say that smoking is not very or not at all harmful.

The choice of "somewhat" harmful is a useful cognitive ploy by smokers. It allows them to admit the obvious, that smoking is bad for one's health, while still holding on to the hope that the health detriments are not severe (or, in other words, that the smoker will be one of the lucky ones that gets by without suffering the deleterious health consequences that affect many smokers).


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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