Smoking and the Homeless: There is Hope

The tobacco industry has targeted homeless Americans through marketing. Now, due to increased public awareness by health officials – steps are being taken to help reduce the number of homeless Americans who smoke.


Of the 2.3 to 3.5 million homeless in the United States, up to 80% smoke cigarettes, according to the National Coalition to the Homeless. This percentage is three times higher than the general population, which sees numbers hovering around the 25% mark in certain high risk populations. Some non-homeless populations see numbers much, much lower than that. Particularly, the wealthy and well-educated classes are far less likely to smoke. However, even those who are economically disadvantaged are statistically less likely to use tobacco products than individuals who are homeless.

Why the Homeless Smoke

There are numerous reasons the homeless smoke. Most report using tobacco products prior to losing their homes. Those who were addicted to tobacco before becoming homeless are more likely to continue smoking. Some cite that the homeless may also continue to smoke due to stress, as well as having a greater likelihood of psychological or emotional issues due to being homeless. This risk increases with individuals who lost their homes and livelihood suddenly and unexpectedly.

At one point, the tobacco industry specifically targeted homeless Americans with their marketing. Some of these companies offered free cigarette samples, free blankets, and other goods with tobacco branding printed on them. They often offered financial support to homeless shelters, as well. While these efforts generally did not introduce homeless individuals to tobacco products for the first time, they did help to keep them smoking and build brand loyalty among homeless smokers.

Whether these efforts by the tobacco industry are ongoing is undetermined, according to the National Coalition to the Homeless.

Medical Repercussions for the Homeless

While smoking is dangerous for everyone, health complications are more likely to occur in homeless people. The lack of health insurance prevents these Americans from seeing a doctor for annual physicals, as well as examinations to determine the causes of troubling symptoms. This makes discovering conditions such as lung disease in their earlier stages difficult.

The homeless are already at an increased risk for health issues due to underprivileged living conditions. This is exacerbated by crowded shelters, or other areas, where disease and illnesses can be easily spread.  Sharing cigarettes or finding unused portions of cigarettes on the ground offers additional risks to homeless smokers.


While the homeless have been a largely ignored group in the war against tobacco, doctors are now starting to take a stand, and other health officials are following. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that homeless smokers needed special attention in reducing their numbers. Doctors have perceived homeless smokers as being less willing to try and quit. However, according to the University of Texas School of Public Health, this isn’t the case, with the homeless being equally as likely to quit smoking as any other population or community.

Thankfully, due to increased public awareness and initiatives being taken by health officials, steps are already being taken to help reduce the number of homeless Americans who smoke. Shelters are beginning to see the benefits of offering cessation programs in conjunction with alcohol and drug abuse programs. Studies are also being conducted to determine the most effective incentives to reduce smoking, including cash and gift card programs.

However, the war is not over. We are asking that all individuals help our homeless in more ways than one. Smoking is killing impoverished citizens and those in need of our help – and our support. We need to extend a hand in order to help end smoking’s grip on the homeless. Due to their situation, health care is usually not an option. Let us help end the ill effects of smoking on the homeless before they begin. After giving a donation to help those in need, help by giving your time and effort to educate.