America Too Tolerant of Tobacco, Survey Shows
Nov. 28, 2000 (Washington) -- Public health messages on the dangers of smoking have gotten through to most Americans. But according to a compelling new national survey of the nation's habits and attitudes on smoking, many of us continue to maintain a smok
This past July, researchers at Mississippi State University's Social Science Research Center interviewed more than 1,500 Americans around the country, asking them their views on tobacco and the family, schools, workplace, government, and other social institutions.
"While there clearly has been a dramatic decline in the number of smokers since the U.S. surgeon general in 1964 first announced the health risks of tobacco, the message has not consistently taken hold across the fabric of American society," says Robert McMillen, PhD, the report's lead author.
About 46 million American adults currently smoke cigarettes. About 42% of adults smoked in 1965, but by 1999, that had fallen to just under 23%.
But according to the report, big hurdles remain in ridding tobacco from our collective conscience. The report's findings included:
Although more than 90% of Americans believe that smoking harms kids, more than 20% permit smoking in the presence of children. And more than 6% do not believe that second-hand smoke is harmful to children.
Almost 60% said they do not oppose tobacco advertisements in magazines, and more than 48% support tobacco ads at sporting and cultural events.
About 64% of Americans believe it is the government's role to regulate tobacco, but more than half say that the government should limit judgements against tobacco firms. And 36% do not believe that tobacco should be regulated as a drug.
About 90% say that students should not be allowed to smoke at school, but more than 40% believe teachers and staff should be allowed to smoke there.
More than 96% of Americans reject tobacco firms' claims that nicotine is not addictive, but more than 20% say that smoking either is not dangerous or is only slightly dangerous.
One tobacco control advocate tells WebMD that he doesn't buy the report's emphasis on contradictions in Americans' attitudes on smoking. Ron Davis, MD, director of the Henry Ford Health System's Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in Detroit, says, "It's a distorted view of the situation. They've reached a skewed conclusion."
Davis says that most research he's aware of indicates increasing public opposition to tobacco advertising, support for higher cigarette taxes, and tougher rules against public smoking. "There's pretty huge literature on that," he tells WebMD. "I would assume that the study authors' knowledge of the literature is limited."
However, Thomas Houston, MD, tells WebMD, "The industry's influence is pervasive, and we're a tolerant nation. It takes us a while to get angry."
Houston, director of science and public health advocacy at the American Medical Association, says that facts about the risks of second-hand smoke have not penetrated the public's consciousness, which he says may explain the report's failure to find universal opposition to both teacher smoking at school and adult smoking in the presence of youngsters. As for the report's indication of apparent public support for tobacco ads, he says, "It's part of society. Changing that culture is going to take time."
McMillen tells WebMD that it is difficult to predict future changes in the social climate toward tobacco. But recalling the 1998 settlement agreement that 46 states reached with tobacco firms for hundreds of billions of dollars, he ventures, "There's been an enormous boost financially and politically to tobacco control and intervention. If those continue, the science is getting better at developing really good, more effective interventions, and we will see changes in the social climate."