(The Hill) — More Americans now prefer legal cannabis over legal tobacco, surveys show, signaling a sharp societal shift from an era when smoking cigarettes was legal pretty much everywhere and pot-smoking was legal absolutely nowhere.
Fifty-seven percent of American adults would support “a policy prohibiting the sale of all tobacco products,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in a research brief last month.
A slightly larger majority, 59%, think marijuana should be legal for both medical and recreational use, according to a Pew Research survey conducted in October. Another 30% approve of cannabis for medical use alone. Only 10% of the American public believes marijuana should not be legal at all.
The findings reflect growing public consensus that cannabis is safer than tobacco, which the CDC considers the leading cause of preventable death. Studies have found marijuana less addictive than cigarettes and marijuana smoke less harmful to the lungs, although doctors caution that cannabis still poses many potential health hazards.
Public health experts don’t expect a national tobacco ban anytime soon. Instead, they hope rising anti-tobacco sentiment will drive federal regulation that makes cigarettes less addictive and less palatable to the young.
“I don’t know of anyone in my peer group that’s in favor of banning tobacco,” said Adam Goldstein, a professor and director of tobacco intervention programs at the University of North Carolina medical school. “We went down that road with alcohol,” he said, alluding to the nation’s failed 1920s experiment with Prohibition.
Recent years have seen a remarkable rise in public opinion toward marijuana, whose legalization as a product for recreational sale began with the passage of state measures in Washington and Colorado in 2012.
Society’s retreat from tobacco has proceeded more slowly. In the Eisenhower 1950s, much of the nation embraced cigarettes as benign, nonaddictive and socially acceptable. Two-fifths of Americans smoked in 1966 when the first cautionary notes appeared on cigarette packs.
The first public smoking restrictions appeared in the 1970s. The 1980s brought smokeless restaurants and airplane flights. In the 1990s and 2000s, states banned cigarettes in restaurants, bars and other public spaces. In 1995, the Food and Drug Administration declared nicotine a drug.
Today, every state but Wyoming restricts smoking in some or all public places and workplaces. All states impose excise taxes on cigarettes, and federal law prohibits their sale to people younger than 21.
Yet, tobacco remains legal in every state. Cannabis, by contrast, remains illegal under federal law.
Advocates and researchers fault the federal government for failing to follow the lead of states in legalizing and regulating cannabis, a move they say could help the industry promote education and safety and shed a lingering Wild West image.
“That lack of action is really problematic,” said Michael Sofis, director of research at Cannabis Public Policy Consulting, a group that works with states. Among other concerns, he said, “it is almost impossible to get research funding on cannabis on the federal level.”
State by state, the national prohibition against cannabis is eroding. Marijuana remains entirely illegal in only three states, Idaho, Kansas and Nebraska, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for recreational use. Thirty-seven states allow medical marijuana, and 10 more permit low-potency marijuana derivatives.
“I think all states, within a short period of time, will have medical marijuana,” Goldstein said.
The rehabilitation of marijuana in public opinion began around 1996 when California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use. Societal support for legal marijuana doubled from 25% in 1995 to 50% in 2011, just before the debut of recreational cannabis. The last Gallup survey, in 2022, found 68% of Americans supporting legal marijuana.
Even now, public opinion remains far from unanimous. Only half of conservatives and Republicans support full legalization, reflecting lingering resistance from the law enforcement community. Liberals and Democrats overwhelmingly favor legal cannabis, along with young adults.
Support for medical marijuana is closer to universal. “Even people who are morally opposed to cannabis generally run into the issue of basic compassion,” said Morgan Fox, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the nonprofit advocacy group.
Public favor toward cannabis has risen apace with legalization: Many Americans support legal cannabis precisely because it is widely legal.
The fact that cannabis is broadly legal does not, of course, mean that it is entirely safe. Waves of studies have found both positive and negative health effects, and much work remains to understand its impact.
“We have way more science and way more research that has been done on tobacco than has been done on cannabis,” said Cathy Callaway, senior director of state and local campaigns at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
The decline of tobacco in American society mirrors the rise of cannabis but in reverse.
More than 40% of American adults smoked until the early 1970s, Gallup polling shows. By 2022, the population of smokers had dwindled to 11%.
As public support for legal cannabis has waxed, approval for unrestricted tobacco has waned.
Since the mid-2000s, support for smoking bans in public places has risen from around 40% to 60%, according to Gallup data.
A much smaller share of the public, around 20%, told Gallup pollsters they think smoking should be “totally illegal” in a 2021 survey.
CDC researchers found much stronger support for tobacco bans in their survey, also conducted in 2021 and published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.
Surveyors asked respondents whether they would support a “policy to prohibit the sale of all tobacco products.” Fifty-seven percent said they would “somewhat” or “strongly” endorse such a measure.
CDC researchers found majority support for a tobacco ban from men and women, young and old, college graduates and high-school dropouts and Americans of all races and ethnicities. They concluded that the findings “can inform federal, state, and local efforts to prohibit all tobacco product sales, including menthol cigarettes.”
America’s city councils and state legislatures are not racing to ban tobacco. Instead, much of the national debate focuses on flavored tobacco products, from the theory that mint- and menthol-flavored cigarettes and e-cigarettes entice children to smoke.
Several states and more than 360 communities have restricted or banned flavored tobacco products, according to the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
At least two cities, the Los Angeles suburbs of Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, have eliminated tobacco sales altogether.
The Biden administration has moved to leverage rising anti-tobacco sentiment by banning menthol cigarettes and limiting nicotine levels, the latter effort tailored to make smoking less addictive.
Three-quarters of Americans approve of moderating nicotine in cigarettes, according to Gallup polling, while the menthol ban has lower support.
The tobacco industry now acknowledges that cigarettes are dangerous and addictive, after decades of resistance. But the companies have protested the menthol ban and have signaled they will oppose nicotine caps.
“We certainly know that the general public is supportive of tobacco-control policies,” Callaway said. “And we also know that the tobacco industry is going to fight us every step of the way.”