Americans Support Public Smoking Ban

A majority of Americans want to ban smoking in public; a fifth want to ban it even in private.

A majority of Americans want to ban smoking in public; a fifth want to ban it even in private.

Gallup (“For First Time, Majority in U.S. Supports Public Smoking Ban“):

A majority of Americans (59%) support a ban on smoking in all public places for the first time since Gallup initially asked the question in 2001. At the same time, fewer than 2 in 10 support the idea of making smoking totally illegal in this country.

According to the American Lung Association, 27 states plus the District of Columbia have passed comprehensive smoke-free laws. A New York City law bans smoking in virtually all public places, including outdoor plazas and beaches.

When Gallup first asked about a ban on public smoking in 2001, 39% were in favor, an attitude that stayed roughly the same through 2007, the last time Gallup asked the question until this year’s July 7-10 survey.

Americans are much less supportive of the idea of a Prohibition-like law that would make smoking totally illegal within the United States. Nineteen percent support that option, not much different from the 14% who favored making smoking illegal in 1990, when Gallup first asked the question.

I’m in the mainstream on this issue, thinking smoking should be legal but that it should be confined to private settings. The negative externalities, in terms of both health risk to others and the sheer stench, justify a public ban.

Where I differ from current public policy is in how I define public and private. Few localities ban smoking in places that are actually public, like sidewalks. So, the ban in DC and most of Northern Virginia against smoking in public buildings  just creates huddles of smokers clogging up the sidewalks–including those outside restaurants with outdoor seating. At the same time, restaurants, which I would consider private spaces where smoking policy ought to be at the discretion of the owner, are considered public accommodations and controlled.

Then again, while I don’t believe a ban on smoking in restaurants justified, I’m pleased with the result, which is a much more pleasant dining experiences for those of us who find smoking–and the lingering smell of smoke on our clothing–noxious.

Interestingly, the number of people who would ban smoking outright–which is to say, even in your own home–is almost exactly the same as the number of people who smoke.

Twenty-two percent of adult Americans in the July poll reported having smoked cigarettes within the last week, a percentage that is essentially unchanged over the last five years. On average, closer to 25% of American adults reported smoking between 1989 and 2007. Before that, Gallup surveys ranging back to World War II found the percentage who smoke in the 30% to 40% range. The highest smoking percentage as measured by Gallup was 45% in 1954.

Another 24% of Americans say they are former smokers, meaning 55% of the adult population has never smoked on a regular basis.

So, we’re down to a very small minority who engage in a habit an overwhelming majority find disgusting. The public policy implication of that is clear: Further bans will be coming.

Indeed, North Carolina and Virginia, two states beholden to the tobacco industry, have banned smoking in public spaces in recent years. That in itself is something I never expected to see in my lifetime.

FILED UNDER: Health, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I’m in the mainstream on this issue, thinking smoking should be illegal legal but that it should be confined to private settings.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Coincidentally, the WHO not long ago released its report on tobacco consumption and measures to reduce smoking. The country-by-country reports are very interesting. Prevalence appears to be highest in Eastern European and the Far East, lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, the U. S. somewhere in between.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I have something of an allergy to tobacco smoke. Although I find other people’s smoking a damned inconvenience I don’t much care about where or whether it’s banned. However, I think the ritual of “running the gauntlet” that has become so common in which you’ve got to make your way through a throng off smokers at the entrances to buildings is worse than an inconvenience. Either smoking should be allowed in office buildings or it should be banned outside as well as inside.

  4. The negative externalities, in terms of both health risk to others and the sheer stench, justify a public ban.

    While there’s certainly health risks for the smoker, the actual risk increase due to second hand smoke exposure is pretty small. This is really an aesthetic choice masquerading as health policy.

  5. Also, 21% of Americans smoke. I would say that qualifies as a “small minority”.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    This is really an aesthetic choice masquerading as health policy.

    That’s right. I’d add that it’s a wonderful opportunity for scolds and busybodies to stick their noses into other people’s business.

    It also shows shows how docile Americans really are. For all our posturing about being rugged individualists, all it takes is a change in fashion and we roll over like puppies who want their bellies scratched.

  7. I wouldn’t say it qualifies as a small minority, even.

  8. @michael reynolds:

    Who are you and what have you done with the real Michael Reynolds, you libertarian imposter!?

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    It’s possible my fondness for cigars has affected my views.

    I’ve just moved from Orange County (where I could smoke in the back courtyard without worry) to Tiburon where I have the feeling that lighting up on my balcony would cause heads in the village below to snap around, and fingers to point, and an awful shriek to go up — very much like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

  10. mantis says:

    The negative externalities, in terms of both health risk to others and the sheer stench, justify a public ban.

    The health risks of second-hand smoke outdoors are nonexistent, with the exception of an tiny percentage of people who are extremely allergic to the smoke. Indoors is another issue, and the only real documented cases of disease contracted from second-hand smoke exposure tend to be among people who work indoors in heavy smoke environments (bars, bowling alleys, etc.), and those people often also live in smoke heavy households.

    So the proposal to ban outdoor public smoking is actually not based on real health concerns. So all you have left is the “stench.” Shall we outlaw unhygenic people, noxious perfumes, BBQs, and on and on? Any strong odor will be objectionable to some people. That’s no excuse to outlaw the behavior. By the way, the emissions from the cars and trucks on the street are doing you far more harm than the smokers on the sidewalk, and there are far more automobiles than smokers.

    That said, as a smoker, I hate the crowds of smokers standing in front of building entrances. It’s extremely rude. It’s not hard to take a walk around the block to smoke, or at least move away from the entrance traffic. Unfortunately my position on this is not a popular one among smokers.

  11. Michael says:

    Cigarettes remain the only consumer product that when used as directed will kill you.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    Nonsense. Bacon can kill you. Booze can kill you. A bad clam can kill you.

    If you smoked a single cigarette a day the odds of it killing you would be minuscule. Use it in moderation — as with alcohol or bacon — and it wouldn’t be a problem. Of course the whole addiction thing is rather complicating, but the point is that there are hundreds of consumer items which, if used to excess, can absolutely kill you. Eat five cups of raw sugar a day — bet it kills you faster than a two pack a day habit.

  13. Trumwill says:

    Give smokers a place to smoke, and I think that we’ll more or less voluntarily move out or doorways. The problem is that the doorways are shady and block the rain and there’s no designated area or the one that is designated is very inconveniently placed.

    One place I worked put up a canopy way on the other side of the lot, and absolutely everybody used it. There’s also something to be said for a specific Smokers’ Entrance, if the building has enough entrances, that anti-smokers can avoid and instead use the other doors as completely smoke-free.

    More broadly, we’ve gotten smoking bans backwards from the start. We pushed smokers out of private establishments where they could be avoided and onto the sidewalk where they couldn’t. Leaving the perfect rationale to keep smoking legal, but have nowhere legal where you can do it.

  14. Rock says:

    How do the potheads feel about the issue?

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon and @mantis: I’m conflating things here by talking about sidewalks and other public outdoor areas with indoor public accommodations, thus confusing the issue. There’s a legitimate health risk where smoke is concentrated. In terms of sidewalks and doorways, it’s mostly an issue with foul smelling smoke that clings to clothes and that’s unavoidable. For those, like Dave Schuler, who are allergic, it’s somewhat more problematic.

    I do think it’s more than mere “aesthics,” though. It’s not that congregations of people smoking on the sidewalk look bad but that they’re blocking the way and creating a foul odor. Partly, that’s a function of, as Trumwill notes above, an unintended consequence of forcing them outside to begin with. But it’s a problem, nonetheless.

  16. I should note I’m also allergic to cigarettes (to the point that I get skin rashes from it). Oddly, pipe and cigar smoke doesn’t bother me, so it some additive they put in cigarettes that’s causing the reaction and not the tobacco smoke itself (i suspect either a preservative or the chemicals they use to make cigaretts go out if dropped). However, I’ve always considered this my problem and have never advocated a ban that would inconvenience a significant portion of the population for the benefit of a tiny minority.

    As to the studies, even if you look at groups like non-smoking spouses of smokers who get extremely concentrated exposure to second hand smoke, the increase in risk for health problems is only a few percent. Most people do things with a far larger riskincrease on a daily basis.

    I’d wager that if cigarettes were twice a dangerous, but odorless, there would be no large spread movement to ban smoking in public. The reality is that the ban is really all about non-smokers not liking the smell, and all the hand-wringing about second hand smoke is just a convenient excuse. That what I meant when I said it’s about aesthetics.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    Thanks to my father I secondhand smoked three packs a day for 17 years. Not only did it permanently worsen my already tortuous hay fever, I now have a significantly elevated risk for lung, esophogeal and throat cancer throughout my life.

    It would have been nice for someone to ban smoking in my old house.

  18. Dustin says:

    Why isn’t the logical step to give out licences to business establishments for it, as they do with liquor licences? I never understood that.

  19. Ben Wolf says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Secondhand smoke is estimated to increase the risk of lung cancer in non-smokers by 20-30%. That doesn’t include the 40,000 who die with secondhand smoke induced cardiac problems. Someone wants to destroy their internal organs with tobacco, fine. In fact I hope they do. Not, however, when I or any other kid has no choice but to breathe it.

  20. Trumwill says:

    If you are a non-smoker who does not believe that non-smokers should ever be affected by smokers, you’re a prohibitionist, more-or-less. Even in the “privacy of your own home,” smoke indoors and you’re imposing on family members. Smoke outdoors and you’re imposing on neighbors. Bars and the like might have non-smoking employees and/or potential customers who demand to be allowed in on their own terms. Sidewalks are also problematic. Apartment complexes are problematic.

    I really think the endgame here is that cigarettes will be legal, but you’re not allowed to smoke them anywhere. Unless you’re wealthy enough to have an isolated home and you don’t have any children.

    The problem with this is that as long as cigarettes are purchased, they will be smoked somewhere.

  21. @Ben Wolf:

    Of the 300 million people living in America, 459 thousand die of heart disease each year.

    So 40,000 heart disease deaths means second hand smoke increases your risk of dying of heart disease next year from 0.14% to a whopping 0.15% Likewise your lung cancer risk increases from 0.037% to 0.053%

  22. Ben Wolf says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Right. What’s a little lung cancer in the name of freedom? A few thousand extra dead kids is no big deal when we need to keep government out of our lives. Their corpses are worth it.

  23. Ben Wolf says:

    @Trumwill: No, not wanting to breathe it doesn’t equal prohibition. The smoking prick community has had decades to develop a nice, sealed helmet that keeps aaaaaallllll that smoke floating right around your own head. There have been hundreds of millions of smokers, so it’s not like they couldn’t pool their cash to pay for R & D.

    So step up, take some friggin’ responsibility and make a smoking astronaut helmet. Or smokers can just admit that half the fun is blowing poison in someone else’s face.

  24. @Ben Wolf:

    A few thousand extra dead kids is no big deal when we need to keep government out of our lives.

    Name me one kid who died of lung cancer from second hand smoke.

    The median age for being diagnosed with lung cancer is 71. Less than 10% of lung cancer suffers develop it earlier than age 50.

  25. Ben Wolf says:

    I’d make every smoker wear headgear identical to Lord Helmut’s in Spaceballs. There’s plenty of room for the cigarette to dangle down in front of their wrinkled lips. A fan would pull the smoke up into a small shaft and blow it directly into the smoker’s eyes, staining the whites yellow with nicotine. A vocal processor would make them all sound like Darth Helmut too, and the gear couldn’t be removed until all the smoke has been absorbed by the smoker’s lungs, clothes, hair and skin.

    Everybody wins.

  26. Trumwill says:

    No joke, one of the most smoker-friendly airports in the entire country is Salt Lake City. By far the most smoker-friendly that I have ever been to. In each concourse, they have a lounge. The ventilation is amazing. You can be right outside it, and you likely won’t smell a thing. It’s the perfect win-win. Smokers have a place to smoke. It doesn’t bother anyone else.

    There really is no reason that we can’t do this with some bars and restaurants. We can even restrict the number of licenses for smoke-able places, in addition to watching their ventilation systems like a hawk. That way, there’s plenty of places for non-smokers to go. The sidewalks can be kept clear. Smokers don’t have to brave 100-degree or 0-degree or inclement weather. Everybody wins!

    And yet, it’s not going to happen. And not because the smokers wouldn’t accept it. The SLC airport will be entirely smoke free. Probably just as soon as they can invent a problem that it’s a solution to. I’m sure the Mormons are hard at work with that.

  27. michael reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:
    Well, Cotton Mather, I see you’re enjoying your puritanical moment, but there are all sorts of human behaviors that are offensive and could be limited if we had a mind to do so. We could, for example, force fat people to hide themselves since they set a terrible example and look awful in shorts. We could demand that people with bad breath be sent to re-education camps. Personally I’d muzzle stupid people because I dislike hearing them mangle the language.

    This is nothing but an excuse for some to crap on others in order to wallow in self-satisfaction and an unearned sense of superiority. It’s an ugly character trait. And frankly I think we should require such moral scolds and busybodies to wrap themselves in yellow caution tape and carry a sign that says, Danger: Smug Overload.

  28. Ben Wolf says:

    @michael reynolds: Are you saying you’ll oppose my Smoking Helmut initiative? If you do I’ll have to start giving your books four stars instead of four-and-a-half in my Amazon feedback.

    Then we’ll see how defiant you are.

  29. jredheadgirl says:

    If 21% of Americans smoke, than privately owned restaurants and bars should account for at least 21% of smoking allowed establishments. Anything less than that is outright discrimination. Smokers have the right to assemble and anti-smokers have the right to avoid them; concurrently, the owners of privately owned establishments have the right to decide whether or not to allow a legal activity on their premises. Do not underestimate the importance of private property rights. In the absence of private property rights, we are surely headed down a one way path towards outright tyranny.

    Imposing your way of life (in this case, being anti-smoking) on a minority (that just so happens to be rather significant in size) not only wreaks of teetotaler pomposity , but it also an attitude that harbors elements of totalitarianism that should never have any place in American politics or culture.

    Above arguments aside, this is just propaganda from our government, the ACS, and the drug companies. If they were to change the wording of the question to “Do you support smokers having their own places to go?”, an overwhelming majority would respond with an overwhelming “yes”. Don’t believe the hype.

    BTW, I’m a smoker and I vote. If you live in a swing state and you support smoking bans, I just might vote against your candidate. It often only takes a few percentage points to swing an entire election. We’re over 20% strong and we’re currently becoming allies with other anti-nanny state voters. Think about all of the other issues that you may be losing on as a result. Now THAT would be a real inconvenience, would it not? It’d be much easier to back off of smokers by giving us a place to go…much easier and way less of an inconvenience in the long run.

  30. Ben Wolf says:

    @jredheadgirl: I don’t give a damn if you smoke in public, because I can either consent and stay where I am or refuse consent and leave. I want smoking stopped in private around children who by definition cannot consent. A parent who smokes around their child literally decides to have their child start smoking, because they’re inhaling the same pack of cigarettes you are.