Smoking, Race and Ethnicity: Tobacco Use and Asian Americans

In comparison to other races and ethnicities, Americans of Asian descent have a much smaller problem with smoking. But a smaller problem is still a problem, and understanding the link between tobacco use and Asian Americans helps us devise strategies to make smoking a thing of the past.

Smoking is responsible for over 480,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, making it the leading preventable cause of death in the country. Reducing the death and disease caused by tobacco has been a public health priority for decades, but progress is being made at different rates in different subgroups within society. The statistics for tobacco use and Asian Americans are, in many ways, a success story, but despite very low smoking rates, many Asian American men in particular still smoke and put themselves at risk.

Tobacco Use and Asian Americans: The Statistics

Asian Americans have the lowest smoking rates out of all ethnic and racial groups in the U.S., according to the CDC. In 2015, just 7 % of Asian Americans smoked cigarettes, compared to 16.6 % of Caucasians and 15.1 % of the population overall. This is a huge difference: Asian Americans are over two times less likely to smoke than the average American citizen.

However, the term “Asian Americans” is very broad, and there is a lot of variation within the group. For instance, the biggest difference in smoking rates among Asian Americans is the gender divide in smoking rates. Around 12 % of Asian American men smoke, compared to just 2.6 % of Asian American women. This reflects a cultural attitude prevalent in some Asian countries, in which men are almost expected to smoke and women are looked down upon if they do.

The link between tobacco use and Asian Americans also depends on the specific subgroup the individuals belong to. For instance, while only 7.6 % of Chinese Asian Americans smoke, 20 % of Koreans do. There are also differences when subgroups and genders are combined; for instance, 20.4 % of Korean American women smoke, and 24.4 % of Vietnamese men smoke.

Smoking Habits for Asian Americans

Smoking rates among Asian Americans are generally low, but there is even more good news than that. Asian American smokers tend to smoke on fewer days and fewer cigarettes per day than smokers from other racial and ethnic groups. A study looking at tobacco use and Asian Americans in California found that 48 % of those classed as “current smokers” actually only smoked on 2 or fewer days per month. Additionally, 46 % of them smoke less than two cigarettes per day.

Unfortunately, there are still increased risks from even light, infrequent smoking, but as you’d expect, these risks are slightly lower than those for heavier, daily smokers.

Asian Americans and Smoking Cessation

Despite the positive facts about tobacco use and Asian Americans, in general, attempting to quit and wanting to quit aren’t especially likely in the group. While 74.1 % of African-Americans and 69.4 % of Caucasian smokers want to quit, only 63.3 % of Asian American smokers do. Similarly, fewer Asian American smokers attempt to quit than smokers from other racial or ethnic groups. Around half of Hispanics and African-American smokers make a quit attempt in a given year, and 40.9 % of Caucasians do, compared to just 39.4 % of Asian American smokers.

Unfortunately, the reason for this disparity hasn’t been clearly established. In general, the more culturally acclimated Asian Americans become to life in the U.S., the less likely they are to smoke. However, it could be that social norms from their home countries impact some smokers’ motivation for quitting.

Tobacco Use and Asian Americans: Breaking the Link

Tobacco use among Asian Americans might not be as big an issue as for other racial and ethnic groups, but encouraging more Asian men in particular to quit smoking would have huge benefits for public health. The biggest challenge for Asian American smokers is increasing the motivation to quit, but there is also evidence that tobacco control policies don’t have as big an impact in Asian American communities as in other U.S. communities. This suggests that culturally-tailored quit-smoking messaging and interventions could make a big difference.

For individual Asian American smokers who want to quit, all of the available approaches can increase your odds of success. Attending counseling, using nicotine patches or gums, taking a stop-smoking medication, using smokeless tobacco instead of cigarettes, or even switching to vaping (e-cigarettes) are all valuable approaches. If you don’t want to stop consuming nicotine entirely, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes are especially appealing options, but you should choose whichever method best suits your preferences and goals.

The important thing to remember is that it’s never too late to quit smoking. Whether you’re a light, infrequent smoker or a long-term pack-a-day smoker, the best thing you can do to protect your health is to stop as soon as you can. Your lungs will thank you for it later.