America's smokers: Still 40 million strong

About 70 percent of them say they want to quit, but that just doesn't happen.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 16, 2014 2:42PM
Teenager lighting a cigarette (© Diverse Images/UIG/Getty Images)By Mike Esterl, Karishma Mehrotra and Valerie Bauerlein, The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. adult smoking rate has plunged to below 20 percent from more than 40 percent half a century ago. 

Increasingly, smokers are poorer and less educated. And many smokers call themselves "occasional" or social smokers, consciously reining themselves in to try to avoid getting hooked.

Still, there are more than 40 million smokers in the U.S. today. And beneath the broad trends are pockets of growth and opportunity that are generating great interest in the tobacco industry.

Smoking rates are higher in gay, lesbian and bisexual groups, which are being targeted by the industry. More Americans are switching to menthol cigarettes like Newport, Lorillard's (LO) biggest brand. Indeed, Newport is the hot brand that Reynolds American (RAI) expects to add to its portfolio with its planned $25 billion acquisition of Lorillard, announced Tuesday.

At a time when Americans crave extreme taste in products that range from candy to beer, it isn't surprising that the only flavored cigarette the FDA allows -- menthol -- is also the one that is growing fastest. Menthol cigarettes have grown to 31.4 percent of the cigarette mix, up from 28.7 percent in 2008, according to Citi Research. The Food and Drug Administration is weighing restrictions on menthol, amid studies suggesting it cools the mouth and throat, making it easier to start smoking and harder to quit.

"It just tastes good,'' said Jay Oh, a 29-year-old waitress in Kotzebue, Alaska, who smokes Kool menthols and lives in the county where U.S. smoking rates are the highest: 41.5 percent for men and 40.8 percent for women, according to a recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Menthol cigarettes are particularly popular with African-Americans, who smoke them 80 percent of the time. Small-business consultant Bo M. Marshall, 40, bought a pack of Camel Crush Menthol cigarettes at Tobacco & Gifts in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday morning. The Crush cigarette, made by Reynolds, tastes like a regular Camel until you crush the logo on the filter, releasing a menthol burst of flavor.

Reynolds also has been cultivating its niche Natural American Spirit brand by pitching it as "organic.''

Russell Mick, a 27-year-old environmental sciences major at the University of Arkansas, rolls his own cigarettes with organic Natural American Spirit tobacco. "It's 'healthy,' " said Mr. Mick, making air quotes with his fingers.

Cigarette companies have already stepped up their marketing in the LGBT community. A government survey published last month estimated the smoking rate among lesbian, gay and bisexuals to be 27.7 percent, compared with 17.3 percent among heterosexuals. 

The higher smoking rates could be tied to greater social stress, more frequent visits to bars and higher rates of alcohol use, according to Legacy, an antismoking group.

Smoking rates also vary regionally. Kentucky, a major tobacco producer, had the highest smoking rate in the country last year at 30.2 percent, followed by West Virginia and Mississippi, according to a Gallup poll. Utah had the lowest rate, at 12.2 percent, followed by California and Minnesota.

In Vicksburg, Miss., 34-year-old restaurant worker Felicia James says she has been smoking for 20 years and doesn't feel out of place. Her city is near Issaquena County, where the male smoking rate rose 1.1 percent in annualized terms between 1996 and 2012, the biggest increase in any U.S. county, according to a recent study.

"It's like everybody smokes,'' said Ms. James, who smokes Newport menthols.

Something else that hasn't changed despite years of state and federal excise tax increases: the lower the income, the higher the smoking rate.

The adult smoking rate among Americans below the poverty line was 27.9 percent in 2012, compared with 17 percent for those above the poverty line, according to a government survey.

The smoking rate in households with annual incomes that top $100,000 is 9.3 percent, according to another recent government survey.

But cigarettes also cost less in smoker-heavy states. The 10 states with the highest smoking rates had an average cigarette tax of 82 cents a pack in 2012, compared with $2.42 in the 10 states with the lowest smoking rates, according to Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

About 70 percent of American smokers say they want to quit, and about 50% try to quit every year.

"I need to quit," says Mr. Marshall, the North Carolina small-business consultant. "I have quit a number of times."

Many say they are ashamed of the habit. Donna "D" Sharp, who works at a law firm in Atlanta, has been smoking a half a pack of Newports a day for 30 years. "We're definitely pariahs of society at this point," Ms. Sharp, 59, said. She isolates herself at dinner parties and goes outside her office building during the day to smoke. "It's a horrible, ugly habit," she said.

But kicking the habit remains tough. Only about 1 in 20 who try to quit in any given year actually succeed, according to various surveys.

Vivek Dutta, a 65-year-old engineering consultant in Cupertino, Calif., says he began smoking when he was 24 and smokes a pack a of Marlboro Golds each day. But he only smokes the first half of each cigarette, hoping less tar will enter his lungs that way.

When Chuck Rushton started smoking as a teenager, cigarettes were 35 cents a pack.

Now he's spending about $48 a week for a carton of Doral Gold cigarettes at N.C. Tobacco, the strip-mall shop in southwest Raleigh where he is a regular. Mr. Rushton, 63, said he would like to quit but hasn't been able to. "I've tried gum, patches, hypnosis, and cold turkey," he said. "The longest I lasted was four days."

His doctor suggested he switch to electronic cigarettes, but it turns out that for him -- and a lot of others -- e-cigarettes just aren't the same as smoking.

He thinks an e-cig "looks like a portable hookah," he said. Mr. Marshall, the Camel Crush smoker, doesn't trust them. "You don't know what's in that stuff," he said. "I can't see inhaling a vapor that's not necessarily FDA approved."

Mr. Mick, the college student, says most of his smoker friends switched to e-cigs because they are more convenient. He tried, but "it doesn't appeal to me," said Mr. Mick. "An e-cig is not a cigarette. The tactile experience, the disgusting sensation of smoke entering my lungs. It's not the same."

—Peter Evans and Betsy McKay contributed to this article.

More from The Wall Street Journal

Jul 16, 2014 3:35PM
nobody's business if I smoke or not.  I ain't blowing it in your face..  maybe you're a fata$$ who should lose 50 pounds but hey, your fatness doesn't affect me.  have another cheeseburger.  what do I care?

tend to your own knittin' -- as my great-grandma used to say.

Jul 16, 2014 3:42PM
Here we go again, picking on smokers while obesity is a worse health hazard.  Obesity has also added more expense to the healthcare industry, a lot of equipment has to be replaced as people started exceeding weight limits.
Jul 16, 2014 4:22PM
Be nice to those 40 million smokers..... They are paying most of your taxes....
Jul 16, 2014 3:21PM

"The adult smoking rate among Americans below the poverty line was 27.9 percent in 2012, compared with 17 percent for those above the poverty line, according to a government survey."


Now the taxpayer has to subsidize their healthcare. We probably have to pay some kind of penalty because they smoke........ Thanks for nothing Liberals.

Jul 16, 2014 4:17PM

Im quit smoking in Jan 2009.

That was my business.

Let the people that want to smoke alone.,,

Pass laws that allow anyone voting  for , "for your own good" laws with a baseball bat for 30 minuites.

Jul 16, 2014 4:58PM
Fat a$$ welfare moochers are worse than smokers.
Jul 16, 2014 3:14PM
Michelle Obama told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2004 that Obama smoked . While he's still thought to , he also admitted that he during his 2008 campaign, so he may not be a Reds purist.
Jul 16, 2014 6:16PM
40 million smokers deal with law after law, and tax after tax for exercising their right to smoke. Funny how homos can ram through an agenda with only 12 million people. Smokers should take some lessons from the queer lobby.
Jul 16, 2014 4:43PM
I quit for a year after I got pregnant with my son, then made the mistake on my first girls night out of thinking I could just have one cigarette at the bar and it would be o.k.  Fell right back into the habit.  Everyone has vices.  I have a friend that looks down on smoking and drinking, but her medicine cabinet is like a pharmacy, she has a dang pill for everything imaginable.  I love the Pistol Annies Pills's drinkin, one's smokin, one's takin pills.
Jul 16, 2014 6:07PM
This is just like pets.   Poor folks cannot feed themselves on their own dime but can smoke and be pet owners.   I could care less what people do with their own life, just do not want to subsidize it all.   This includes healthcare.
Jul 16, 2014 9:41PM
Bill Clinton prefers cooze soaked stoagies.
Jul 17, 2014 1:18AM
smoke if you want to,i dont give a rats a$$!
Jul 16, 2014 8:07PM

Why do all you losers, THINK you are SUBSIDIZING everyone else...??

Unless your Insurance Company is SCREWING get lower rates for not smoking.

Taxes "paid by smokers" in this Country are extremely high, if you don't smoke THEY are subsidizing YOU !!!

Tobacco Companies, were sued by groups, mostly smokers and the Government; That money was supposed to go for their (smoker's) healthcare...Most didn't.

ONCE AGAIN the Government is subsidizing YOU, the non-smokers....Get a friggin' life..

And quit being whiney little losers...

Jul 16, 2014 4:00PM
I don't smoke because I enjoy it.  I do it because it makes me look cool.
Jul 16, 2014 6:00PM
Who cares. Charge them high insurance rates land let them kill themselves.
Jul 16, 2014 6:08PM
"Smoking is my business" says the people driving up my insurance premiums.
Jul 16, 2014 3:39PM
I tend to disagree that most smokers are poorer or less educated than non-smokers.   I live in a very nice, upper middle class area in Queens, NY and I know plenty of smokers who are not anywhere near being poor (have good jobs, own expensive houses, drive nice cars, shop at high end food and retail stores, etc.) and who are educated!  My good friends also live in a very upscale area in the suburbs and they are smokers as well as their neighbors and some of the residents in their area.  I also disagree that more gay smokers as well.  If anything I have several gay friends, both male and female who are VERY health conscience, some are vegans, work out at high end gyms, do spinning, yoga, and run marathons in NYC, who also happen to be anything but poor or low income, who live in very upscale areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens in multi million dollar coops and condos,  who HATE smoking and are non smokers!  
Jul 16, 2014 3:27PM
Just Quit!!!! Mind of Matter is the answer.
Jul 16, 2014 3:49PM

More like "40 million weak" Pathetic losers. Does nothing for you whatsoever, except take 20 minutes off your life for every one you smoke.Just put a gun to your head and get it over with. The NY state and CDC quit smoking commercials are  great!! If they are not enough to make you quit you truely are an ignorant fool. Below the pverty line has the highest rate of smokers, thks welfare and food stamps!!

Jul 16, 2014 3:20PM
I used to smoke for a few years while I was in college quite heavily, quit cold turkey when I graduated and had no issues doing so.

Maybe I was lucky, or most people are seriously weak willed.

Though I will admit I started vaping as of late, it's more enjoyable by far without the health risks.

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