cigarettes, smoking

Milwaukee Has Fourth-Most Smokers Among Large U.S. Cities

Nearly one in four Cream Citizens is a smoker, which a local surgical oncologist says has broad negative health effects.

Milwaukee ranks well above the national average when it comes to the percentage of the population that smokes, according to a new study.

In Milwaukee, 23.1% of adults are smokers, the report found. Out of all large U.S. cities, Milwaukee has the fourth-highest percentage of residents who smoke, trailing only Detroit, Cleveland and Memphis.

Researchers at Filterbuy analyzed data on American adults from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. For the study, a smoker was defined as someone who has smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime and currently smokes all or some days. The research only included cities (not metro areas) with at least 100,000 residents. Cities were grouped according to population size: small (100,000–149,999), midsize (150,000–349,999), and large (350,000 or more).



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Some of that key data for Milwaukee:

  • Adults who smoke: 23.1% (vs. 16% nationwide)
  • Adults in poor physical health: 16% (12.6%)
  • Adults with COPD: 6.8% (6.4%)
  • Adults with cancer: 5.3% (7.3%)
  • Adults who have experienced a stroke: 3.7% (3.2%)
  • Adults with coronary heart disease: 6% (3.9%)

The study noted that from 1995 to 2019, the prevalence of smoking in the United States dropped by about 30%. Nearly one in four Americans smoked in 2000, while only 16% of the population claimed to be smokers in 2019, an indication that national and local campaigns aimed at getting people to stop smoking appear to be working.

Although smoking rates have been declining for decades, the devastating risk factors remain, explained Dr. Alberto de Hoyos, chief of thoracic surgery and director of thoracic oncology at Ascension Wisconsin.

Lung cancer remains the main concern, but with a twist. “What we have observed is that most patients with lung cancer now are former smokers,” de Hoyos said. “Twenty years ago, most were current smokers. This makes sense, because we know there is a lag of about 20 to 30 years between smoking and cancer. The fact that a person stops smoking doesn’t mean that the risk for lung cancer disappears. It starts to decline over time, but that risk is there for many, many years.”

Regardless, it’s important for people to stop smoking, even though many are reluctant to kick the habit, he said.

The health effects of cigarette smoking aren’t limited to lung cancer and include COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and cancers of the mouth, larynx, kidneys and bladder, he said.

“Cigarette smoking is also related to higher incident of heart disease and myocardial infarction, early cardiac death and an accelerated rate of atherosclerosis,” de Hoyos said.

Circulatory issues can lead to amputations, and the risk of stroke for cigarette smokers also jumps, he said.  

More than 480,000 people die every year from smoking, according to CDC data. The medical care required to assist smokers and the lost productivity that result from smoking-related health issues exceeds $300 billion a year. The CDC noted that in 2020 about 16 million people dealt with smoking-related illnesses.

“Cigarette smoking causes many other health issues and frequent visits to health providers and emergency room visits and missed time from work,” de Hoyos said. “The cost is substantial.”

Pinpointing why Milwaukee’s percentage of smokers is higher than other large cities is difficult and complex.

“We cannot attribute the rate of smoking in a population to only one aspect,” de Hoyos said. “There are many, many aspects that contribute to the rate of smoking. Among those are education. There’s a lot of education that still needs to be done about the effects of smoking on general health.”

For more information, a detailed methodology, and complete study results, go here



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.