Why Do So Many People Smoke Cigarettes In Europe?

You’re not imagining it: cigarette smoking in Europe really is more prevalent than in the U.S. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it!
woman with cigarette outside coffee shop

If you’ve ever traveled to Europe, you’re probably familiar with the omnipresent smell of cigarettes and the need to dodge clouds of smoke at every street corner (and sometimes even inside bars and restaurants). Sure, major American cities have plenty of smokers too, but smoking in the United States is less prevalent than smoking in Europe.

According to the World Health Organization, 21.9 percent of Americans smoked tobacco in 2018. In comparison, the average smoking rate for Europe was 28.7 percent. When you look at the approximate number of cigarettes smoked per person per year, the picture is even more striking. Out of the 20 countries that smoke the most cigarettes, 15 of them are entirely or partially in Europe. The United States is 68th on the list.

But why is there such a difference between smoking in the United States and smoking in Europe? It’s especially strange when you consider that way more tobacco is grown in North America than in Europe. But there are a few possible reasons we can examine.

Smoking In Europe And Income

One of the most compelling explanations for the disparity between tobacco consumption in the United States and Europe is related to income. A study by the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco found that cigarette smoking prevalence is linked to lower income levels “worldwide and across subgroups.”

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the income picture is a little more nuanced. It appears to be a curve, in which the very lowest and very highest income groups smoke less, but the middle class smokes more. In general, the United States tends to have higher incomes than many European countries, and the NBER says income differences could account for up to one-quarter of the difference in smoking rates between the United States and Europe.

The Power Of Messaging

Perhaps the largest contributor to the gap between the rates of smoking in Europe and in the United States is differing beliefs about how bad for your health smoking cigarettes can be. In other words, at least in this case, the United States has been much more effective at public relations and messaging.

From U.S. surgeon general warnings to campaigns by groups like the American Cancer Society, the messaging has been clear since the 1960s: smoking cigarettes is bad for you. And it’s worked. About 96 percent of Americans believe smoking cigarettes is at least somewhat harmful to your health.

This message doesn’t seem to have broken through in Europe, where a majority of EU residents say anti-tobacco rules have gone far enough. The NBER highlights the lower smoking rates among wealthier and more educated Americans, who have read and understood the anti-smoking messaging, compared to Europe, where more educated and affluent groups still smoke.

Taxes, Shmaxes

While Europe has imposed even higher taxes on cigarettes than the U.S. government has, along with fairly stringent regulations, another reason potentially contributing to the smoking disparity is that Europeans simply aren’t as bothered by these controls. Europeans are, frankly, used to paying higher taxes. In fact, members of the European Union pay an average individual tax rate of 39 percent, while Americans pay only 31.9 percent on average. Some European countries, such as Denmark, France and Belgium, pay closer to 50 percent.

Even though the U.S. tax rate on tobacco is only about half that of the tax rate in EU countries, Europeans are somewhat immune to new taxes. Thus, these disincentives don’t have a large impact on the rates of smoking in Europe.

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