Cigarette Smoking Rates Down Sharply Among U.S. Young Adults

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the percentage of U.S. adults who smoke cigarettes has reached a new low of 11% this year, much of the decline is tied to sharply lower smoking rates among young adults. From 2001 to 2003, an average of 35% of U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 29 said they smoked cigarettes, compared with 12% in the latest estimate.

This 23-percentage-point decline among young adults is more than double that of any other age group over that time. As a result of these changes, young adults have moved from the group most likely to smoke cigarettes to the second-least likely, with a rate higher than only the oldest Americans.

Gallup trends through 2012 showed that young adults were the age group most likely to smoke cigarettes. Between 2013 and 2015, their smoking rates dipped below those of 30- to 49-year-olds, and by 2018, these had also fallen behind 50- to 64-year-olds’ smoking rates.

Now, the percentage of young adults who smoke is four points above that for those 65 years and older, the age group that has consistently been least likely to smoke.

These trend data on smoking by age are based on aggregated data from Gallup’s annual Consumption Habits survey, conducted each year from 2001 to 2022 with the exception of 2020. Three-year aggregates provide sufficiently large samples to get stable estimates of young adults’ smoking habits over time, as well as the ability to analyze subgroups of 18- to 29-year-old adults.

Smoking has historically been, and continues to be, highly related to educational attainment. Young adults with a college degree have consistently been far less likely to smoke than young adults who have not graduated college. Both groups have shown significant declines in smoking over time, but the decline has been greater among young college nongraduates (25 points) than among young college graduates (10 points). Specifically, the rate has dropped from 39% to 14% among young adults without a college degree and from 17% to 7% among young college graduates.

Smoking rates among men and women in the 18 to 29 age group have also declined, and by roughly similar amounts. Between 2001 and 2003, an average of 38% of young men and 32% of young women smoked cigarettes. The current figures are 13% and 12%, respectively.

Some Cigarette Smoking May Be Shifting to E-Cigarettes

Since 2019, Gallup has measured Americans’ use of electronic cigarettes, also known as “vaping,” separately from its measure of cigarette smoking. Between 2019 and 2022, an average of 7% of U.S. adults reported smoking e-cigarettes in the past week.

However, vaping is far more common among 18- to 29-year-olds, at 19%, than among older age groups, including 7% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 3% of 50- to 64-year-olds and less than 1% of those 65 and older.

Given these differences, young adults are more likely to vape than to smoke cigarettes, while among older age groups, cigarette smoking prevails.

It is unclear to what extent e-cigarette usage has grown among young adults in recent years because Gallup did not ask the question before 2019. Federal surveys of students document large growth in e-cigarette usage among teensbetween 2011 and 2018, at the same time cigarette smoking was declining among this demographic.

These data suggest that much of the decline in cigarette smoking among young adults may have been offset by vaping, indicating that young adults are still smoking products containing nicotine, but through different means.

Gallup has found that those who smoke e-cigarettes are unlikely to also smoke tobacco cigarettes. Among young adults since 2019, an average 15% say they smoke e-cigarettes but not tobacco cigarettes; 8% smoke tobacco cigarettes but not e-cigarettes, and 4% smoke both.

The combined 27% of young adults who either smoke cigarettes or vape approaches the 26% cigarette smoking rate Gallup measured for this age group about a decade ago, although it is still below the greater-than 30% incidence for cigarette smoking before 2007.

Marijuana Usage Increasing Among Young Adults

In contrast to the decline in cigarette smoking among young adults, use of marijuana in this age group has increased, according to Gallup trends dating to 2013. Between 2019 and 2022, an average of 26% of young adults indicated they smoked marijuana, up from 17% between 2013 and 2015.

More than twice as many young adults now say they smoke marijuana as smoke cigarettes. Marijuana smoking is also more common among young adults than vaping.

Marijuana usage has also climbed in recent years among adults between the ages of 30 and 64, while it has been stable at a low level among senior citizens.

Four in 10 young adults smoke at least one of the three substances — cigarettes, e-cigarettes or marijuana — including 3% who smoke all three, 11% who smoke marijuana only, 9% who smoke e-cigarettes only and 3% who smoke cigarettes only. Another 14% smoke two of the three substances, with the majority of these young adults smoking e-cigarettes and marijuana but not cigarettes.

Overall, slightly more than one in four U.S. adults smoke any of the three substances, with the oldest Americans least likely to do so.

Bottom Line

Public health officials would be encouraged by the steep decline in cigarette smoking over the past two decades, a trend driven largely by plummeting smoking rates among young adults. But young adults are increasingly smoking marijuana, perhaps because it is now legal to use in a growing number of states, and vaping. Both vaping and marijuana are more common activities for young adults than traditional cigarette smoking.

Still, fewer young adults smoke or vape today than smoked cigarettes two decades ago, before e-cigarettes became widely available. And although many health researchers believe vaping is safer than smoking traditional cigarettes, they do not believe e-cigarettes are safe in general. Further, the long-term health effects of vaping are not as well-known, and the Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to try to limit marketing of vaping to minors.

 

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