Decline in smoking may be ending with the emergence of 'social smokers'

December 19, 1993|By New York Times News Service

After years of admonitions about the dangers of smoking, some Americans may be growing weary of the message. New evidence suggests that a steady decline in cigarette smoking over the last 25 years may be ending, with one recent study hinting that a resurgence may be under way.

Surprisingly, the shift appears to include groups that have historically been at the forefront of enlightened attitudes toward health habits -- adults in their 40s, people with college educations and those in households with more than $35,000 in annual income.

People in these groups, which include new smokers and those who have quit, appear to have emerged into a new category of "social smokers" who light up only occasionally.

"I call it pleasure revenge," said Faith Popcorn, a New York marketing consultant who specializes in trends. "People are feeling tense. They're sick of being so perfect -- going to bed early, working hard, eating all the right food, being absolutely politically perfect. So they decide to have a cigarette. It's arrogance, in a way."

While industry statistics show that domestic cigarette sales have been falling for more than a decade, some scientists and marketing experts say some pockets of society still resist health warnings against smoking.

Further, the emerging patterns demonstrate that the activities of health groups and people active in the anti-smoking movement might have reached a saturation point -- at least until a new force such as higher cigarette taxes or stronger connections between smoking and disease initiate another decline.

Fueling the notion that smoking is on the rise within these groups is the latest annual health survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for Prevention magazine, which provides a snapshot of the nation's attitudes toward health issues.

It shows an increase of five percentage points, to 30 percent, in 1992 in the number of adults who identified themselves as cigarette smokers. Based on a telephone poll of 1,250 people 18 years of age or over, the survey reflected the highest level of smoking in the United States in eight years. The survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The survey also showed that the number of people 40 to 49 who smoke increased 11 percentage points, to 32 percent; that the number of smokers with more than a high school education rose nearly seven percentage points, to 25.9 percent; and that those with annual household incomes of more than $35,000 increased to 26.7 percent, from 19 percent in 1991.

"We do get aberrations," said Tom Dybdahl, director of research for Prevention magazine. "If next year we get a 28 percent, it could mean there hasn't been a real increase. But clearly, what we have shown is the end of the decline. Whether there really is an increase, we'll need more time to know."

In the face of the steady decline in cigarette sales, the larger number of smokers tends to suggest that the smoking population may be shifting away from those who smoke a pack a day or more to those who may puff only once a day or twice a week and do not necessarily consider themselves full-time smokers.

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