PRINCETON, NJ - Older Americans are generally less likely than those who are younger to report that they smoke, but the age/smoking relationship is not uniform. Smoking is higher among younger baby boomers between the ages of 44 and 54 than it is among those in their 30s and those 55 and older.
These statistics are based on responses to the question “Do you smoke?” asked of more than 350,000 Americans, aged 18 and older, in 2009 as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. This large aggregate sample size provides a more detailed portrait of the relationship between smoking and age than is usually available from the government or from other sources.
The general conclusion that smoking is less prevalent among older Americans has been well-established. Gallup data, however, demonstrate that this drop in smoking is not uniformly lower as age increases, but it is a pattern that has specific variations across the age spectrum.
Of particular interest is the finding that baby boomers between the ages of 44 and 54 report higher levels of smoking than either those immediately younger or those who are older.
After peaking in the high 20% range for Americans in their 20s, smoking rates drop to 21% at age 40. After that point, instead of continuing to drop, smoking prevalence rises, climbing back to 27% among Americans age 51. Smoking then decreases again, eventually reaching 20% among those age 59, and typically well below that for those age 60 and older.
It is not clear why smoking bumps up among 44- to 54-year-old Americans. These individuals, for the most part born between 1956 and 1966, are at the tail end of the baby boom (usually classified by demographers as those born between 1946 and 1964). They would have moved through their teenage years — when most smokers begin their habit — in the 1970s and early 1980s. It is not clear what happened during this time period that might have resulted in a higher rate of taking up the smoking habit. Or, it may be that something more general about life for Americans within the 44-to-54-year age range, such as children growing up and leaving the home, is more conducive to smoking.
Men More Likely Than Women to Smoke at Almost Every Age
Men are more likely to report smoking than women at almost every age point, although both genders follow the same upward and downward smoking patterns across the age spectrum. The gender gap is particularly large for Americans who are now in their 20s and 30s.
The increased rate of smoking among young baby boomers is evident among women. The highest rate of smoking among women — 26% — occurs not only in their 20s, but also among women at age 48.
The highest rate of smoking among men occurs at age 23, when about a third report smoking. Unlike women, the rate of smoking among men never again breaks the 30% barrier even among those in their 40s and early 50s, though it is higher for men in this age range than for men in their 30s.
Across Age Spectrum, Smoking More Prevalent Among Black Americans
Black Americans are more likely than whites or Hispanics to smoke at most age points, with the largest gap among those in their 50s. Hispanics are less likely to smoke than whites or blacks at all age points up until about age 70.
Smoking is particularly prevalent among black men, reaching 40% among those aged 25 to 29, and stays at or above the 30% level up until age 60.
The average level of adult smoking in 2009 across the 353,849 interviews conducted in Gallup Healthways’ daily interviewing was 21%.
This average represents substantial differences in smoking across age groups. Smoking is significantly below average among Americans currently in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, while above average at most age points between 18 and 59.
The drop-off in smoking rates among older Americans no doubt has multiple causes. One unfortunate epidemiological truth arises from the fact that older Americans who persist in the habit are more likely than those who don’t smoke to have died, leaving nonsmokers as an increasingly higher percentage of the older population. It may also be that older Americans stop smoking as its associated health problems become more manifest, and/or that older Americans have become more health conscious and thus more likely to take heed of warnings about the deleterious effects of smoking.
That smoking rates are lower among Americans in their 30s and early 40s than those currently in the 44-to-54-year age range provides an interesting causal puzzle. There may be cohort explanations focusing on the specific social or political environment those born in the late 1950s and early 1960s encountered as they grew up. Or it could be that something about the life circumstances of those in their late 40s and early 50s is more conducive to smoking. The Gallup and Healthways Daily tracking project began in January 2008, so there are no comparable historical data to use to analyze smoking patterns across individual ages from decades ago, which could have helped to determine if this is a recurring pattern.
Of interest will be the fate of these 44- to 54-year-old smokers as they continue to age. Will this smoking “bulge” continue to move through the age pipeline in the years ahead? Will this age cohort begin to smoke less frequently as they age? Will Americans now in their 30s begin to increase in smoking incidence as they move into the 44-to-54-year age range?
For Gallup Daily tracking, Gallup interviews approximately 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, each day. The Gallup smoking results are based on the aggregated sample of 353,849 national adults, aged 18 and older, interviewed in 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
By Frank Newport, Gallup