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Southern Cultures 12.2 (2006) 66-74



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The South, the Nation, and Tobacco


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Figure 1
For years, tobacco use has been intimately associated with the South and often stereotyped as southern. But do southerners today actually use tobacco more than other Americans? A century ago in Birmingham, Alabama, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

My firmly devout Church of Christ grandmother from the hills of east Mississippi dipped snuff for most of her eighty-five years. She wasn't proud of her habit—tried to hide it, in fact—but couldn't seem, or maybe didn't really wish, to stop. Although ahead of the gender curve in her use of tobacco, she nevertheless was just one of millions of other southerners in the twentieth century to enjoy and thereby fuel the production of the region's most important narcotic. Tobacco's [End Page 66] seductiveness, of course, was hardly limited to the American South: it was, from the 1600s on, of national and global import. Still, tobacco—especially chewing tobacco, snuff, and cigarette smoking—is intimately associated with the region and often stereotyped as southern. But do southerners actually use tobacco more than other Americans?


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Figure 2
What, though, of tobacco products other than cigarettes? Might southerners dip and chew more, leading to higher overall tobacco use? Chewing tobacco label for J. Brown & Co. of Detroit, Michigan, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

The most reliable information on regional trends in cigarette smoking per se comes from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (formerly titled the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse). The NSDUH, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been fielded since the 1970s and includes thousands of respondents.1 Until 1998 the surveys available for public use categorized respondents by region, defined according to the U.S. Census. Since then, for reasons of confidentiality, the regions and states of individual respondents have been excluded from the public-use data, but additional online tabulations from the NSDUH still permit us to examine regional and state differences on smoking and tobacco use until as recently as 2003.

The table below shows 1979–98 cigarette-smoking trends for the South—defined here as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, West Virginia, the eleven states of the former Confederacy, and Washington, D.C.—and the non-South, or the other three regions of the United States. "N" is the number of respondents surveyed in each year. Regional differences in cigarette-smoking rates, at least since the late 1970s, apparently have not been large and even then existed for only a few years. The rate of cigarette smoking, moreover, has visibly and equally fallen for southerners and nonsoutherners alike, from more than 40 percent in 1979 to about 30 percent in both regions in 1998. [End Page 67]


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Table 1
Cigarette Smoking Rates By Region, 1979–1998

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Table 2
Rates Of Tobacco Use By Region, 1977–1994

What, though, of tobacco products other than cigarettes? Might southerners dip and chew more, leading to higher overall tobacco use? Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS)—which collected information on all tobacco use from 1977 (when the GSS was first fielded) to 1994 (when the GSS apparently stopped collecting this information)—we see the same trends as before: rapid declines for residents of both regions, from rates in the low forties to those in the mid-to-high twenties, and essential regional equality.2

The Southern Focus Poll (SFP), sponsored by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also asked about smoking in their Fall 1995 Poll (N=1,343), and again we find pretty much the same story. Twenty-six percent of southerners reported smoking; 27 percent of nonsoutherners did so. Southerners with less than a high school education—the group probably most stereotyped as tobacco users—were, in fact, somewhat less likely to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 66-74
Launched on MUSE
2006-05-10
Open Access
No

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