Cannabis vs. Cigarettes: Boomers Would Rather Switch Than Fight

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Smoking made big news in the 2016 elections

The 2016 elections put smoking squarely in the news.

California voters approved a $2 tax hike on a pack of cigarettes, bumping the total to $2.87; on the other hand, Colorado, Missouri and North Dakota all rejected hefty tobacco tax increases.

cannabis-legalization-map-2016Oh, wait a minute. That’s not the smoking news you were thinking about? Okay, okay, just kidding.

Legalized use of cannabis was on the ballot in nine states: eight voted yes – four of them allowing recreational use, joining Oregon, Washington and Colorado as safe havens for Mary Jane devotees.

Regardless of where one stands on the issues, it’s clear that Boomers are to blame/credit for setting the trends that drove the popularity of tobacco down and acceptance of cannabis up. Let’s start with cigarettes, and the example our parents set.

Coffin nail chronicles: when cigarettes were cool


By the mid-20th century, America was firmly hooked on cigarettes – a 1955 Gallup survey found that half of men (52%) and a third of women (34%) smoked them. On average, users went through 3,600 a year (Office on Smoking and Health, 1978).

Cigarettes were cool.

At the movies, suave leading men, tough guys, future presidents and – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – “rebellious” young women all lit up constantly. No surprise, in their off-screen hours, Hollywood celebrities starred in glamorous advertising endorsements.

For mid-century Americans, cigarettes were not only cool, they were modern. Mass-production equipment did not come on line until the 1890s, and by 1920 cigarettes still only accounted for 18% of US tobacco consumption. The rest went to cigars, pipes, roll your own, chewing tobacco and snuff – all distinctly masculine pursuits and therefore smelly and/or gross. Face it, guys, that’s our lot in life.

But with the roaring twenties, the rise of movies, the home-front stresses of WW2, fifties-cool and sixties feminism, cigarettes steadily became more acceptable to women. Today, the incidence of smoking among women (19.3%) is close to that among men (24.8).

The Office of The Surgeon General offer an impressive report brimming with details. Here is one of the more amazing charts – per capita consumption of tobacco by form, 1880-2011.


Against all odds: Boomers kicked the habit

The cigarette heyday lasted from 1945 to 1965 before – under increasing pressure from health professionals and the Federal Government – a steady decline set in. Fewer and fewer young adults aged 18-24 took up the habit.

And Boomers pioneered the movement.


True, the oldest of them followed their parents’ lead: 45% of people aged 18-24 in 1965 smoked. But by 1989, when the youngest Boomers reached 25, the rate was down to 35%. Gen Xers and Millennials followed the downward trend: only 19% of Americans aged 18-24 smoked cigarettes in 2012.

Of course, tobacco companies tried to retain young smokers in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, softening both their products and marketing approaches to adapt to the new cultural and regulatory climate.

Filter tips, menthol flavors, low tars, slims and lights replaced old-time formulations and – apart from macho outliers Marlboro and Camel “Where a man belongs” – cultivated more accessible, inclusive personas. Depictions of actual cigarette smoke, with its anti-social connotations, pretty much disappeared from advertising altogether.

With their marketing strictly controlled today, it’s instructive to look back to when cigarette ads were an everyday feature of Boomer-world.


Wow, it’s amazing that with all this temptation Boomers were able to lead the way to nicotine freedom. Of course, some were already headed in a different direction – one that would not become legal for decades.

Cannabis vs. cigarettes: Boomers would rather switch than fight

Boomers, like their parents and grandparents were raised with strict taboos against cannabis. Most believed it to be addictive and morally and socially destructive. Despite the image of the sixties as time of rampant drug use, a 1969 Gallup survey found that only 4% of American adults had ever tried marijuana.

cigaerettes_tareyton-fight-not-switchBut, with Woodstock, anti-war demonstrations, free speech sit-ins and hippies in the news, and with psychedelic artwork motifs showing up in advertising, Gallup also found almost half (43%) of Americans feared marijuana was used by “many or some high school kids.”

Our parents were scared. They had good reason. As it turned out, unlike the long-running Tareyton ad campaign, when it came to tobacco versus cannabis many Boomers would rather switch than fight. Hey, peace, love, flowers in the hair. Groovy, man, groovy.


Hippie-cool rebels gained a pop culture foothold in the mid-sixties – even resurrecting an old 1936 morality movie, Reefer Madnessas a campy in-joke against the squares – and young Boomers were increasingly exposed to druggie references in media, movies and music. By 1973, when the Steve Miller Band recorded The Joker, most older Boomers understood the chorus:

I’m a joker
I’m a smoker
I’m a midnight toker

But understanding lyrics isn’t the same as approving or using.

marijuana-use-by-age-group-1969-2013_gallupBoomers, as today, were divided over cannabis use, though many were open to experiment. In 1969 only 8% of them had ever tried marijuana; by 1985 that number peaked at 56% (Gallup tracking surveys).

Sure, 56% is a big number, especially when compared to the trial rate among Millennials (36% in 2013), but the flip side of the data is that about half of Boomers never tried the stuff. Remember that next time you’re told we were all pot-heads. For further proof, dig deeper into Gallup data and you’ll find only 5% smoke it today.


Over time, Boomer progressives spearheaded growing support for legalization, from 12% approval in 1969 to 60% just prior to the 2016 elections.

The key word is progressive: 45% of those 55+ still oppose legalization in the 2016 Gallup poll.

So, after 50 years, the Boomer generation has finally replaced Reefer Madness“the burning weed with its roots in hell” – with guarded acceptance of marijuana.

Rocky Mountain High going national

Prior to the 2016 elections, marijuana use was legal in 11 states. In eight of them, only medicinal sales were permitted; however, Colorado, Oregon and Washington also allowed sales of cannabis for recreational use.

marijuana-sales-estimates_2013-2020_pre-2016-electionsEarlier this year, based on these three free-use states, Marijuana Business Daily estimated retail sales of recreational cannabis at around $1.5 billion and projected a tripling to the $5 billion range by 2020.

With this kind of money on the table in states with a combined population of only 16.2 million, it’s easy to see why players in the alcohol, edibles and tobacco industries are actively considering the arena now California (39 million) is opening up to recreational use.

Advertising Age reports that Constellation Brands (Corona beer, Svedka vodka) is already pondering alcoholic beverages spiked with enhanced with cannabis (November 10, 2016). However, for now, Philip Morris has denied rumors about a new Marlboro M line. Well, time will tell.

One thing is sure: the Boomer generation will approach the legal cannabis market the way it always has – complexly segmented and steeped in a lifetime of interwoven attitudes and symbolism. We can help brands clear the smoke … Boulder, home to Rocky Mountain High, is where we live.


Boomer - neXt SM logo_MMOriginally published as a Boomer-Plus Consulting Group post; in September, 2017, we up-branded as Boomer / neXt to welcome the 4 million Gen Xers who join the Boomers in the 50+ space each year.

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