WASHINGTON — A majority of Americans support banning all tobacco products, according to a new poll published by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The survey, which was published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Preventing Chronic Disease, asked 6,455 people nationwide: “To what extent would you support a policy to prohibit the sale of all tobacco products?” A little over 57% of respondents said they would support such a policy.
The findings are striking given that few tobacco control groups and tobacco-critical legislators are publicly pushing for a total ban on tobacco. Instead, most legislative effort has been directed at banning only flavored tobacco products. Over 360 localities have passed laws banning flavored products, according to data from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Just two localities — Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, Calif. — have banned all tobacco sales.
Supporters of a full-scale tobacco ban argued that the findings are evidence that tobacco control advocates need to push for such a change, which was once seen as radical.
“The public is ahead of policymakers and even public health on this issue,” said Ruth Malone, a researcher on the tobacco industry at the University of California, San Francisco, and the editor-in-chief of the journal Tobacco Control. “We need to be bold and we need to be braver. There’s a lot of anxiety over calling for something bold like this.”
“Public health leaders need to have a spine,” Malone added.
There’s scant data available measuring how the American public’s support for a full-scale tobacco ban has evolved, though experts told STAT that available data suggests support for the policy appears to be growing over time.
A 1968 poll conducted on behalf of the tobacco industry, for example, found that only 13% of Americans believed that a law should be passed banning cigarettes. A 2018 Gallup poll found that 25% of Americans surveyed believed that smoking should be made completely illegal. However, it’s difficult to compare the results of that Gallup survey to the new CDC data, which asked about banning the sale of cigarettes, not making the act of smoking illegal.
“This is a big shift from only a few years ago, when it was hard to find anyone willing to talk about the end of tobacco,” said Robert Proctor, a professor of history at Stanford University who has argued for ending the sale of tobacco products.
“I remember when we were tarred as ‘prohibitionists,’” added John Banzhaf, professor emeritus of law at George Washington University, who founded the anti-tobacco group Action on Smoking and Health in the 1960s.
The findings are also in line with recent polling from other nations, which show sizable support for ending the sale of tobacco products — even among people who use them. A 2015 survey found that nearly 50% of smokers in Hong Kong supported a total ban on tobacco. A 2018 survey of E.U. residents found that 40% of smokers and recent quitters supported a total ban on tobacco within 10 years. Meanwhile, a 2013 survey of New Zealanders found that 46% percent of smokers supported banning cigarettes within 10 years.
The new CDC data shows, however, that there is less support in the U.S. for banning all tobacco products among users of tobacco products. Only about one-quarter of current smokers surveyed said they would support banning all tobacco products.
The findings prompted pushback from one public health expert, who argued that while a ban on tobacco products would in theory improve public health, it would be impossible to implement.
“Prohibitions don’t work. They never do, they never will, they never have,” said Jasjit Ahluwalia, a professor of medicine at Brown University. “Instead of banning it … why don’t we help people quit smoking [and] why don’t we prevent people from starting?”
The new poll also does not ask respondents whether they feel differently about banning different types of tobacco products, such as banning vapes — which generally carry lower health risks — versus banning combustible cigarettes.
“What do we mean by tobacco products?” asked Ahluwalia, who has argued that the Food and Drug Administration should authorize more e-cigarettes to help smokers quit combustible cigarettes.
The new poll also showed strikingly large support for banning menthol cigarettes, including among Black Americans, the racial group that most commonly uses menthol cigarettes.
The survey found that 62% of people surveyed supported banning menthol cigarettes, including 61.5% of Black Americans.
The FDA has proposed banning menthol cigarettes because the flavor additive makes it easier to start smoking, particularly for young people, and harder to quit. Regulators released a plan last April to ban all menthol cigarettes nationwide. That proposal, which is currently in draft form, still needs to be finalized by regulators, and likely would face a prompt legal challenge from the cigarette industry.
Robin Koval, CEO of the Truth Initiative, said in a statement that the findings “should give a green light to the FDA and the Biden Administration to move swiftly to finalize the proposed rule to prohibit menthol in cigarettes.”
STAT’s coverage of chronic health issues is supported by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Our financial supporters are not involved in any decisions about our journalism.
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