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Americans united, yet divided on smoking

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WASHINGTON — Although the nation can't agree on who should be president, it appears to be united on the health risks of smoking: 99 percent of Americans say smoking is harmful, according to research released here Tuesday.

Nevertheless, two in 10 Americans regularly light up, according to the survey sponsored by Mississippi State University.

When questioned about smoking, Americans tend to say one thing and do the other, said Arthur Cosby, director of the university's Social Science Research Center, which conducted and funded the study.

Americans are "quite conflicted" about tobacco control and use, Cosby said. For example, they puff with one breath but acknowledge the danger with the next, Cosby said. Likewise, many adults say teenagers shouldn't smoke, even while lighting up in front of them.

Although 94 percent of Americans say secondhand smoke harms children and 78 percent believe children of smokers are more likely to use cigarettes, according to the study, 20 to 30 percent don't restrict smoking inside the home or car. At least 22 percent say it's fine for parents to smoke in front of children.

The apparent contradiction between belief and behavior could be "a reflection of the power of addiction," Cosby said. Many smokers might not be able to quit, even though they are "people who intelligently and emotionally decide these tobacco-control notions and beliefs are good things."

Cosby called the report the most comprehensive national assessment of public attitudes toward tobacco since the 1964 Surgeon General report linking smoking with emphysema and lung cancer. The new report has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. The data were based on phone interviews with 1,503 American adults in July.

The study was funded by Mississippi State's Social Science Research Center, which uses university cash to pay for two surveys each year. Money from the state's settlement with tobacco companies, the Mississippi Department of Health and the state's Tobacco Control Foundation paid for a previous similar study that examined attitudes toward smoking within the state.

"The most consistent finding of this research is the degree to which Americans are united that teens should not smoke," said Robert McMillen, one of the report's authors.

About nine of 10 Americans said parents shouldn't allow underage children to smoke, and 93 percent said stores that sell tobacco to minors should be punished.

Among the study's other findings:

Roughly 50 million American adults — or 36 percent — say the government should not regulate tobacco. Although most people support voluntary tobacco control by private institutions, Cosby said, some might be reluctant to see the government intervene.

However, 53 percent believe the government should limit legal judgments against tobacco companies.

About 58 percent say smoking shouldn't be allowed in the office; 78 percent report that their workplaces have strictly enforced tobacco policies.

Although most Americans — 70 to 80 percent — are comfortable with bans on smoking in shopping malls, in fast-food stores, and at indoor sporting events, 61 percent said restaurants should permit smoking. Roughly four out of every five people said cigarettes should be allowed in taverns.

"Bars are clearly seen as a culturally appropriate place to smoke," McMillen said.