Cigarette smoking has dominated the American landscape as a form of cultural expression for nearly all of the 20th century. Now in the 21st, the age of near paranoid health fervor, people are wising up to their doctors’ words. The end of cigarettes is approaching fast, experts suggest, and for a variety of reasons.
The era of powerful businessmen smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes in the office, of perky hostesses probing approaching diners, “Smoking or non-smoking?,” of Joe Camel professing the smooth deliciousness of his cigarettes to TV viewers, is over. Smoking is on the way out, at least in its current form. As the obsolete model falls by the wayside, its cooler, high-tech digital cousin — the e-cigarette — is stepping in. For what purpose, experts aren’t sure. But many agree that in the next few decades, smoking rates could approach the lowest figures they’ll ever reach.
A Constellation Of Causes
It isn’t one reason in particular that has caused smokers to dwindle in size from 42.4 percent of the U.S. population in 1965 to 18 percent in 2011; rather, a collection of factors working together, from multiple angles, to pressure the American public toward healthier lifestyles even if health isn’t their intention. These factors run the gamut from personal (finances and health) to legal (non-smoking laws and age restrictions) to cultural (marijuana norms and e-cigarettes).
The Surgeon General first advised against cigarettes in 1964, but efforts to curtail the habit from a number of vantage points arose mainly in the early 1980s. In 1984, then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop proposed that a “smoke-free society" could be possible as early as the year 2000. Clearly, Koop’s mission failed. And the reason it failed, many say, is that the message was little more than hot air. He didn’t offer practical changes to make that future a reality.
"What's different today is that we have policies and programs that have been proven to drive down tobacco use," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told The Associated Press. "We couldn't say that in 1984."
Among those policies is the obvious standout: Smoking in public now borders on the impossible. No federal ban exists to push smokers al fresco when they light up, but so many states have already adopted some form of a ban that the de facto equivalent is rapidly approaching. California was the first state to enact a statewide ban, including all restaurants, bars, and non-hospitality workplaces, in 1995. And since then, bans have seeped into all but 14 states, according to figures from the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Some 81.5 percent of Americans are now protected from indoor smoking in at least one of the designated locations, and 49.1 percent are protected from all three.
Accompanying this legal shift is a second, perhaps more subtly pervasive one: taxes. Cigarettes have more than tripled in price since 1994, with both state and federal taxes having increased along with them. Compared to 1970, when the average price of a pack was $0.38, and the tax a meager 18 cents, by 2011 the average pack ran for $5.62, with a heftier $2.35 tax on top. Put simply, it’s just becoming too inconvenient to smoke.
Regular cigarettes, at least. Electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigs” as they’re more colloquially known, are enjoying great success. Supposed healthier alternatives to traditional smokes, e-cigs contain none of the cancer-causing carcinogens of regular cigarettes, and instead deliver a surge only of water vapor, nicotine, and artificial flavors.
The reception has been mixed. The CDC issued a report proclaiming the product as a “gateway” to other tobacco products, while an Oct. 2013 study showed “it didn’t seem as though it really proved to be a gateway to anything,” according to lead researcher, Theodore Wagener, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
A Reasonable End
Conservative projections suggest the overall smoking rate may never hit zero. There are simply too many people who are curious enough to try it, become addicted, and shuck the health hazards, to expect full eradication of the habit, experts suggest. Instead, they peg a reasonable goal at somewhere around 12 percent by 2050 — six percent if we’re really lucky. Then there are the optimists, such as the current surgeon general, Boris Lushniak, who last month released a 980-page report on smoking that pushed for even tighter tobacco-control policies.
"I can't accept that we're just allowing these numbers to trickle down," he told the AP. "We believe we have the public health tools to get us to the zero level." Lushniak may err on the more hopeful side of estimates, as less far-reaching, though still optimistic figures argue the rate is capable of falling as low as five percent by 2050, and definitely under 10.
Whether e-cigarettes replace the current combustible model is perhaps less important overall than the mere fact cigarettes are fading. Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. More than 480,000 people die annually as a result of cigarette smoking, more than 40,000 of whom are victims of secondhand smoke. Some researchers even cite “third-hand smoke” as the silent killer of a generation whose lips have never even touched the stuff.
Richard Daynard, a Northeastern University law professor who focuses on tobacco issues, says we may have finally reached our tipping point. As the Surgeon General Lushniak popularly proclaimed at a recent news conference, enough may simply be enough. It used to be that "the country really wasn't ready" to walk away from cigarettes," Daynard told the AP. "I think the country's ready now."