For the first time ever, more Americans said they smoke marijuana (16%) than tobacco cigarettes (11%) in a Gallup survey conducted July 5-26. The milestone is the result of decades of anti-tobacco campaigning in the US and a string of successful state-by-state marijuana legalization efforts. It’s the latest sign that a budding cannabis sector is displacing the waning power of the once-mighty tobacco industry.
Cigarette use has been on the decline in the US since the 1960s, when an influential report from the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee warned that cigarettes are addictive and cause cancer. In the decades since, a series of government-funded anti-smoking campaigns—combined with tobacco taxes, mandatory health warnings, and packaging restrictions—have steadily chipped away at cigarette sales. Even tobacco companies are quitting cigarettes; tobacco titans like Philip Morris are now hoping to cash in on vaping instead. But so far, a rise in vaping hasn’t made up for the steady decline of cigarette use.
The rise of marijuana use is a more recent phenomenon. Just 4% of Americans admitted they had ever tried weed in a 1969 Gallup survey. That number rose quickly throughout the psychedelic 1970s, but flatlined at about a third during the height of the war on drugs in the late 1980s and 1990s. Over the past decade, as US states began legalizing recreational cannabis, more Americans have been experimenting with marijuana: Now, nearly half of US survey takers say they’ve tried the drug.
Public sentiment about marijuana legalization followed a similar trend. The idea was a pipe dream in the 1980s, when less than a quarter of the country supported it. But public opinion began to shift during the 1990s, some time after president Bill Clinton admitted he had smoked weed (but famously “did not inhale”). In 2011, for the first time, a majority Americans favored legalization. The next year, Colorado became the first US state to legalize marijuana.
Now, a decade later, 19 US states, plus Washington, DC, and Guam, have legalized recreational marijuana, and another 19 states have legalized medical marijuana. At least two more states—South Dakota and Maryland—will give voters a chance to legalize weed through ballot measures during the upcoming November elections.
The surge in new cannabis users has been a boon to marijuana companies, which are looking to expand the existing $30-$40 billion US weed market. But stock market enthusiasm for the sector has tanked from its 2019 peak, as investors place higher scrutiny on publicly traded weed companies’ slim profits. As the legal industry grows, a small number of corporations are likely to consolidate the market and focus on profitability.