Personal Health

5 Fascinating Facts About Americans’ Boozing and Smoking Habits

Religion and education are key to understanding the American public's relationships with alcohol and tobacco.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Dan Kosmayer

Every July, Gallup surveys hundreds of American adults about how much we imbibe and smoke cigarettes—and how we publicly perceive of those activities—for its annual Consumption poll. From our opposition to lowering the drinking age to 18 to our overwhelming national preference for beer, the poll always uncovers a wealth of interesting findings. Here are five of the most striking facts about how Americans choose to cut loose.

1. Smokers Aren’t Necessarily Drinkers

Smokers are often stigmatized as more likely to give in to other unhealthy habits, like heavy drinking or overeating. Nicotine addiction is viewed as just one manifestation of an addictive personality, or, like alcohol abuse, as a crutch for managing social anxiety. Yet there is little correlation between smoking and drinking. Twenty percent of American adults smoke and 64% drink alcoholic beverages on occasion, but the percentage of drinkers among smokers is just 70%—only six points higher than the national average. According to the researchers, these results suggest that “the social and psychological forces at play that lead Americans to smoke and to drink are relatively independent of one another.”

2. Smoking Correlates to Religious Affiliation

The highest smoking rates in the U.S. are found among those who claim no religious identity. Mormons and Jews, on the other hand, have the lowest rates of any religious group in the country. This checks out, given that Mormon doctrine prohibits smoking and Jewish law discourages the use of cigarettes. But overall religiosity also corresponds to smoking rates; regular church attendance significantly decreases the likelihood of being a smoker and 11% of those who are “very religious” smoke, compared with 27% of those who are unreligious.

3. Wine Is the Alcohol of Choice for Highly Educated Americans

A whopping 49% of Americans with postgraduate educations prefer wine to other types of alcohol. Wine is also the beverage of choice among women and older Americans. Only 15% of those who have high school educations or less, however, name wine as their favorite alcoholic beverage. The link between education and alcohol preference makes sense, given that highly educated—and presumably more affluent—Americans have the leisure time, money and access to knowledge to learn about wine’s infinite varieties and subtle distinctions in taste.

4. Less Educated Americans Are More Likely to Smoke Cigarettes

Unsurprisingly, education corresponds to smoking patterns as well. Twenty-seven percent of Americans with high school education or less say that they smoke, while only 6% of those with postgraduate education do. This issue has been extensively studied by the National Institute of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which published the following stats on education level and smoking patterns in February of this year:

  • 24.7% of adults with 12 or less years of education (no diploma)
  • 41.9% of adults with a GED diploma
  • 23.1% of adults with a high school diploma
  • 9.1% of adults with an undergraduate college degree
  • 5.9% of adults with a postgraduate college degree

With education comes increased awareness of the harmful effects of smoking, as well as better access to healthcare information and programs that help people kick the habit. Proximity to other smokers also influences how likely people are to pick up smoking themselves. As the study authors put it, “less-well-educated Americans associate with other less-well-educated Americans who are more likely to smoke, making smoking more of an acceptable business and social behavior.”

5. Smokers Exercise Cognitive Dissonance to Justify Their Habits

In 2014, after decades of public education campaigns, scientific studies and anti-tobacco advertisements, no smoker can say with a straight face that she isn’t aware of the risks of regular tobacco use. But few choose to dwell on the potentially devastating health consequences of their habit (cancer, stroke, heart disease, pregnancy complications and respiratory problems). Smokers manage this cognitive dissonance—knowing that cigarettes are bad for them, yet choosing to smoke anyway—by acknowledging that smoking is harmful to their health but downgrading the degree of that harm. When asked by researchers how harmful the health effects of smoking are (very, somewhat, or not at all), 88% of nonsmokers said it is very harmful compared to only 47% of smokers. Nine percent of nonsmokers said it was somewhat harmful, while 41% said the same.

Here we see textbook evidence of the “optimism bias”—people believing, or at least hoping, that they are less at risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others. You hear the same logic with people who swear that their grandfathers smoked until the day they died at the ripe age of 95: Sure, smoking is dangerous, but maybe I’ll be one of the lucky ones who escapes the negative health consequences of my actions.  

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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