How Smoking Reflects the Deep Divide in American Society


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It may seem like you barely notice anyone smoking cigarettes any more — a bad habit consigned to the trash heap of history, sent there by a 1966 surgeon general’s report. If you’re educated and reasonably well-off — and live in suburban or urban area — you’re right. The number of people who smoke has dropped considerably among the well-educated. This is great news, right? Troublingly, it’s only half the story, and it’s a story of privilege. According to new CDC data, the socioeconomic disparity with which America is struggling in so many ways extends to this dangerous habit: Americans of lower socioeconomic status, or SES, are still smoking, and dying in ever-more disproportionate numbers.

SES is generally measured using four criteria: education, occupation, income, and wealth. Of these, only occupation does not indicate a greater number of smokers than the general population.

The number of smokers has dropped since 1966, but more than twice the number of people without a high school diploma smoke than those with a college degree.

  • Smoking among college graduates is down 83%.
  • Smoking among people who’ve had some college is down 61%.
  • Smoking among people with just a high school diploma is down 52%.
  • Smoking among people without a high school diploma is down 39%.
education

In this graph and the one below, “Current Use” is defined as self-reported consumption of cigarettes, cigars, or smokeless tobacco in the past 30 days (at the time of survey). Data is taken from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2012, and refer to adults aged 18 years and older. (CDC)

If we combine the lack of two other SES factors — income and wealth — and look at the people living below the poverty line, the numbers are also concerning, in another CDC graph:

low ses

Not only do more folks with low SES smoke, but they do so more heavily, according to the CDC.

  • People living in poverty smoke cigarettes for a duration of nearly twice as many years as people with a family income of…
Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

As content editor, I get to do what I love everyday. Tweet, share and promote the best content our tools find on a daily basis.

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Sasha Harriet

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