Most health care experts blame American lifestyles, and particularly the large number of Americans who are obese, as one reason why life expectancy in the United States is lower than in many other countries. They also agree that the best thing we could do to improve our health would be to reduce tobacco use, exercise more and eat less and more healthy food. Unfortunately we have not been able to do this. Every year, The Harris Poll® measures the number of people who smoke, who are overweight and obese and who wear seatbelts. The latest Harris Poll finds little reason for optimism that Americans can learn to live more healthy lifestyles.

This year™s survey conducted by Harris Interactive®, is based on telephone interviews with 1,010 adults surveyed between February 10 and 15, 2009.


Twenty percent of adults smoke cigarettes. This number fluctuates by small amounts each year, presumably because of sampling error. However, the decline of cigarette smoking has been extraordinarily slow, from 29% in the early 1980™s, to 25% in the early 1990™s, 23% between 2001 and 2005 and, on average, 21% between 2006 and 2009.

There are several reasons why so many people still smoke. Large numbers of young people still start to smoke because it makes them feel cool, grown-up, sophisticated or chic. And once people are hooked, tobacco is powerfully addictive. Many surveys have shown that most smokers have tried, and failed, to stop smoking several times.

This Harris Poll also finds that in addition to the 20% of adults who smoke, a further 3% smoke cigars, smoke pipes, or chew tobacco.


This latest survey finds that 80% of the adults over 25 are overweight by one definition (the Metropolitan Life tables) and 66% of all adults by another (Body Mass Index). It also finds that 32% of people over 25 are obese using the first definition (20% or more above the recommended weight in the Metropolitan Life tables) or 26% of adults using the Body Mass Index. These numbers are neither the highest nor the lowest recorded in recent years, however, the trend has been a remorseless increase in obesity over the last 25 years. In the early 80s, 15% of adults over 25 were obese (based on the Metropolitan Life tables). The average number for the last four surveys, from 2006 to 2009, is 35%. Obesity has more than doubled over 25 years.

Seat Belt Use

The one bright spot in this series of measures is that the proportion of adults who report that they always wear a seat belt when in the front seat of a car has increased and keeps on increasing. This year fully 91% of all adults claim to do so, the highest number we have ever recorded and four points higher than last year.

Over the 26 years we have been measuring this, those who use seatbelts have increased from only 19% to 91%. Or, if you use the average data to smooth out sampling fluctuations, this has increased from 29% in the early 1980™s to 88% since 2006.

So What?

These data reflect how difficult it is to help people to stop smoking, to eat less or to exercise more. Most people know what they should do but cannot do it. Some experts believe a major reason for this is the large number of advertisements people see for foods, sugar-rich drinks.


The Harris Poll® was conducted by telephone within the United States between February 10 and 15, 2009 among a nationwide cross section of 1,010 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region, number of adults in the household, size of place (urbanicity), and number of phone lines voice/telephone lines in the household were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Full data tables and methodology are available at

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

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