In 2023, the percentage of smokers in the US fell to an all-time low, marking a significant milestone in the decades-long decline in cigarette smoking in America. This decline, driven by a combination of social norms, no-smoking regulations, and ongoing education, has had a profoundly positive impact on the nation’s health. It has not only saved millions of lives since the 1960s but also instilled a sense of hope and optimism for the future of public health, showing that similar strategies can be applied to address other health issues. 

What Percent of Americans Smoke?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s annual survey found that 1 in 9 US adults, or 11% of the population, identify as current smokers. Smoking in America has declined steadily since its peak in the 1960s when 42% of adults smoked. Smoking cessation has been the result of substantial cigarette taxes, broader tobacco product price increases, and a range of no-smoking regulations designed to curtail the practice. 

So, when did people stop smoking – and why?

The US Anti-Smoking Campaign

In 164, the US government acknowledged the harmful effects of smoking for the first time. Tobacco companies knew for decades that their products were likely carcinogens, but research throughout the 1940s and 1950s made public what private companies spent millions of dollars to keep quiet. 

The Office of the US Surgeon General led the charge, introducing a range of efforts to discourage new smokers and convince current smokers of the danger. The campaign started with strict regulations on the use, sale, and advertising practices of tobacco companies. Designated smoking areas, indoor smoking bans, and TV advertising restrictions took decades to roll out, but incremental steps had a positive impact from the very beginning. 

Crucially, the federal government and local public health agencies also convinced individuals to stop smoking. Published studies on rodents and shocking lung cancer statistics demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer. The campaign is estimated to have reduced the number of smokers in the US by 91 million between 1964 and 1985, saving roughly 789,000 lives. 

Related: The Cancer Industry: Money Over Results

Convincing the Experts

US doctors were largely skeptical of the connection between lung cancer and smoking, lagging far behind their European peers. By the 1890s, public health officials in Germany and the UK were already studying the shocking rise in lung cancer, a disease that had been previously considered rare. Through the interwar years, studies by Franz Hermann Muller and others laid the groundwork for the case against smoking, though American doctors would take until the 1950s to duplicate, confirm, and publicize the findings. 

Ultimately, it took the confluence of cellular pathology, animal experimentation, and research into chemicals commonly found in both filtered and unfiltered cigarettes for the government to take action. Through it all, the association between smoking and lung cancer played a crucial role in lowering smoking rates over time. 

US Smoking Rates by the Numbers

The prevalence of smoking in the US didn’t arrive at 11% overnight but relied on a

Bar chart of US smoking rates by year.

 steady decline throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It took until 2005 to fall from 42% to 20.9%, and nearly another a decade and a half to reach 11%. 

Different demographics also smoke at vastly different rates, varying by age, race, location, and income levels.

  • White adults smoke at the highest rate of any ethnicity (13%), just ahead of Blacks (12%). 
  • Adults with a GED (31%) smoke the most of any education level, nearly twice as many as those with a high school diploma (17.1%) and six times more than individuals with an undergraduate degree (5.3%). 
  • Low-income families smoke at higher rates (18.3%) than high-income individuals (6.7%). 
  • The Midwest has the highest smoking rate of any region at 14%. 

Despite the progress, tobacco and smoking remain some of the world’s most prolific killers, claiming the lives of 8.7 million people globally each year. 

Prevention Saves Lives

The success of the anti-smoking campaign serves as a reminder of two key points. First, prevention saves lives. Second, success doesn’t happen overnight. The best time to prioritize cancer prevention regulation to address other lifestyle-related causes of cancer was fifty years ago; the second best time is now. Support Less Cancer’s efforts to put prevention first; consider donating and powering our educational programs and advocacy.