Americans' Respect for Smokers Erodes

Guy smoking a cigarette
(Image credit: Morguefile)

Americans seem to have less respect for smokers compared with those who don't smoke, a new Gallup survey suggests, also finding that 12 percent of U.S. adults turn their noses up at overweight people, too.

While two decades ago, between 14 percent and 17 percent of Americans reported having less respect for a person who smokes, the recent survey found that number grew to 25 percent. The growth of the nonsmoking population may partly explain the trend, Gallup researchers noted. The percentage of adult smokers dropped from 27 percent in 1991 to today's 22 percent, Gallup found.

Nonsmokers are the primary source of bias against smokers, with 30 percent saying they have less respect for smokers; that's compared with 5 percent of smokers who share this view. However, former smokers are nearly as likely as adults who have never smoked — 24 percent vs. 33 percent — to look down on smokers. [Infographic: Smokers in the US Today]

Older Americans ages 65 and over, those with at least a college degree and upper-income Americans earning $75,000 or more annually are among the least likely U.S. adults to smoke. They are also among the most likely to report having less respect for smokers.

Unlike smoking, being overweight doesn't carry the same level of disapproval. More than four in five adults, including overweight and non-overweight individuals, say others' weight doesn't influence their respect for people. However, high-income and college-educated Americans were more likely than others to say they have less respect for people who are overweight.

Americans may feel less bias toward overweight people than toward smokers because obesity is far more prevalent in society, the researchers speculate. Forty-two percent of respondents in the Gallup poll described themselves as overweight, with 6 percent saying they are very overweight. Even if Americans are not overweight themselves, most are likely to have relatives, coworkers, or close friends who are overweight, which may increase their compassion for the condition, according to Gallup. [10 Easy Paths to Self Destruction]

Further, Gallup's question asked Americans about their reactions to "overweight" people, not whether they harbor a bias toward obese individuals.

Past research has suggested social stigma can exacerbate physical decline in obese people. A study published in the March 2011 issue of the journal Social Psychology Quarterlyfound that the moderately obese participants who reported being discriminated against showed a greater physical decline over time, measured by their ability to perform everyday tasks, than did the severely obese, who didn't report discrimination.

The new Gallup poll was conducted July 7-11, and involved a random sample of 1,016 adults, ages 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. During the landline and cellphone interviews, pollers asked respondents: "All in all, does the fact that a person [smokes/is overweight] make you respect them more, respect them less or does it make no difference to you?"

The results were weighted by age, gender, race and other factors to reveal a nationally representative sample.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.