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Americans Favor Legal Marijuana Over Legal Tobacco

The change highlights a societal shift from an era when tobacco was legal and accepted everywhere and pot-smoking wasn’t


More Americans now prefer legal marijuana over legal tobacco, surveys show, reports The Hill. The change highlights a sharp societal shift from an era when cigarette-smoking was legal and accepted pretty much everywhere and pot-smoking was very illegal everywhere. 

Fifty-seven percent of American adults support “a policy prohibiting the sale of all tobacco products,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in a research brief last month.  

A slightly larger majority, 59%, believe marijuana should be legal for both medical and recreational use, according to a Pew Research survey from October. Another 30 percent approve of cannabis for medical use alone. Only 10 percent of the American public believes marijuana shouldn’t be legal for any purpose.

Growing Consensus

The findings reflect growing public consensus that weed is safer than tobacco, which the CDC considers the leading cause of preventable death. Studies have found marijuana less addictive than cigarettes and pot smoke less harmful to the lungs.  

Public health experts don’t expect a national tobacco ban anytime soon. Instead, they hope rising anti-tobacco opinion will drive federal regulation that makes cigarettes less addictive and less attractive young people. 

“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, referring to the U.S.’s failed 1920s experiment with Prohibition.

Trading Places

Recent years have seen a remarkable rise in public positivity toward Cannabis. It’s legalization for adult recreational sale when voters passed state measures in Washington and Colorado in 2012.  

Society’s disenchantment with tobacco has taken more time. In the Eisenhower 1950s, many or most Americans viewed 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 tobacco 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. And in 1995, the Food and Drug Administration declared nicotine a drug.

Today, every state but cowboy Wyoming restricts smoking in some or all public places and workplaces. All states impose excise taxes on cigarettes. Federal law prohibits their sale to people under 21.    

Yet, tobacco remains legal in every state. Cannabis, by contrast, though legal for adults in 21 states (plus DC and Guam), remains illegal under federal law.

Advocates and researchers fault “the feds” for failing to follow the lead of state governments in legalizing and regulating weed. That move, they say, could help the industry promote education and safety and shed a lingering Wild West image.

Prohibition Is Eroding

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 weed for adult use. Thirty-seven states allow medical marijuana, and 10 more permit low-THC, CBD-based marijuana derivatives.

Societal support for legal cannabis doubled from 25 percent in 1995 to 50 percent in 2011, just before the debut of adult-use cannabis. The last Gallup survey, in 2022, found 68% of Americans favoring legal weed.

Even now, public opinion remains far from unanimous. Only half of conservatives and Republicans support full legalization. This is, to all appearances, due to stubbornly lingering resistance from the law enforcement community. Liberals and Democrats overwhelmingly favor legal marijuana, 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 of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). 

Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, especially if it’s good old ganja we’re talking about.

Public attitudes toward marijuana have improved apace with legalization: Many Americans support legal cannabis precisely because it is widely legal.

The decline of tobacco in American society mirrors the rise of cannabis, in reverse.  

More than 40 percent of American adults smoked until the early 1970s, Gallup polling shows. By 2022, the population of smokers had dwindled to 11 percent.

As public support for legal cannabis has waxed, approval for unrestricted tobacco has waned.

Support Grows For Banning Tobacco

Since the mid-2000s, support for smoking bans in public places has risen from around 40 percent to 60 percent, according to Gallup data.  

A much smaller share of the public, around 20 percent, 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. Published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, it was also conducted in 2021.

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. The support came from both 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.”

Debate Focuses On Flavored Tobacco Products

America’s city councils and state legislatures are not racing to ban tobacco. Instead, much of the national debate focuses on flavored tobacco products. This arises 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 California cities, affluent Los Angeles suburbs Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, have banned tobacco sales altogether.

Limiting Nicotine

The Biden administration has moved to harness rising anti-tobacco sentiment by banning menthol cigarettes and limiting nicotine levels. The latter effort is intended to make smoking less addictive. 

Three-quarters of Americans approve of moderating nicotine in cigarettes, according to Gallup polling. But the menthol ban has lower support. 

The tobacco industry now admits cigarettes are dangerous and addictive, after decades of obfuscation. But the companies don’t like talk of a menthol ban. They’ve also indicated ed they will oppose nicotine limits.   

“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.” 

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