Young Smokers May Be Switching to Cigarette Alternatives

A teenage girl smokes a cigarette.
(Image credit: Jetrel/Shutterstock)

The percentage of young adults in the United States who smoke cigarettes has dropped in recent years, but the decline could be due to this population switching from cigarettes to other forms of tobacco, a new poll suggests.

The Gallup poll found that over the last decade, the smoking rate among 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States dropped 12 percentage points: from 34 percent of people in this age group smoking in 2001-2005 to 22 percent in 2011-2015.

In past years, young adults were more likely than people over 30 to smoke cigarettes, but now, the smoking rate among young adults is similar to the rate among people ages 30 to 49 and those ages 50 to 64, Gallup said. [The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today's Parents]

However, another recent Gallup poll, conducted from January to October this year, found that young adults are more likely than those in older age groups to use alternative forms of tobacco, like cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco.

For example, in the recent poll, 5.4 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they use smokeless tobacco (which includes products like chewing tobacco and snuff), compared with 4.3 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 2.8 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds. In addition, 4.1 percent of young adults said they smoked cigars, compared with 2.4 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 1.7 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds, the poll found.

Gallup started asking participants about alternative forms of tobacco only in 2014, and so the new poll cannot determine whether use of alternative forms of tobacco among young adults is increasing.

But an increase would agree with findings from other studies of tobacco use among young people. For example, a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2011 and 2014, the use of cigarettes among high school students declined, while the use of hookahs increased. (A hookah is a large pipe in which tobacco smoke passes through water before being inhaled.)

The Gallup poll also found that young people were more likely than people in other age groups to say they had used three or more forms of tobacco. Nearly 5 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they had used three or more forms of tobacco, about double the national average, of 2.5 percent.

Increased taxes and regulation on the sale of cigarettes may be one reason why young adults have turned to alternative forms of tobacco, Gallup said. Additionally, 2014 study found that young adults cited appealing flavors and the influence of friends as reasons why they tried alternative forms of tobacco, Gallup said.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.