June 03, 2014

Smoking and Education

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

People with higher levels of education are less likely to smoke cigarettes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009 just 5.6 percent of those 25 and older with graduate degrees smoked—compared with nearly half (49 percent) of those with GEDs. More education correlates with less cigarette smoking across the educational spectrum: 25.1 percent for high school graduates, 23.3 percent of who attended college but earned no degree, and just 11.1 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees smoked.

Why such a consistent difference?

It’s not just that “smarter” people know better than to smoke, or that higher education is filled with anti-tobacco messages. Those with graduate degrees are about half as likely to smoke as those with bachelor’s degrees, but most graduate programs probably never even mention smoking, so the health risks of smoking is not just something we learn in school.

Sociologist Vida Maralani studied the relationship between education and cigarette smoking and drew an interesting conclusion: it’s not education itself that causes the disparity in smoking, but other factors present in early adolescence that lead someone who is less likely to smoke to pursue more education.

She notes that the vast majority of smokers begin smoking before they complete their education. Maralani points out that “the mechanisms linking education and smoking in adulthood have been operating from a much earlier point in the life course,” so it is likely not just more education that causes people to smoke less.

What factors are likely to lead someone to complete more education? In addition to their academic ability, their socio-economic background, family expectations, and their peers’ educational aspirations all play important roles. Maralani studied other factors such as organizational and interpersonal skills that one might learn in participating in extra-curricular activities, hypothesizing that these skills build a sense of self-efficacy—the belief that you can achieve a goal that is important to you—and perhaps “help people make better health-related choices.”

She also examines whether one’s future expectations in adolescence are important predictors of both educational attainment and whether or not someone smokes. Being able to delay gratification is important to do well in school; sometimes you have to study instead of doing something more fun with friends. Smoking can be a predictor, then, of less educational attainment.

Likewise, recognizing that smoking will likely have adverse affects on your health in the future would discourage a future-oriented person from smoking. Future academic goals also require you to learn to follow a series of rules; for teens, one of these rules is typically not smoking. Smoking might be a symbolic rejection of rules and expectations for teens.

Then again, Maralani finds that one of the best predictors of adolescent smoking is having a parent who smokes, as well as having a friend who smokes. Her study did not find future expectations or cognitive ability to be significant factors. Instead, she describes a “bundling effect” of a variety of forces that help us understand why people smoke.

We can learn about more than just the relationship between smoking and education from this study.

First, correlation is not the same as causation: just because two things coexist, it does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.

Second, understanding large-scale patterns is complex. Large studies are based on probabilities, meaning likelihood rather than certainty. Many people with low levels of education and who have parents and friends who smoke never do so themselves. Some people with Ph.D.s smoke, despite this being one of the groups least likely to do so. People may take up smoking for different reasons, which may or may not be reflected in a large study.

Third, social science is important in order to create effective public policies. It is important to grasp the nuances of behavioral choices like smoking in order to create public health policies. Rather than base policies on assumptions, we need to better understand a problem like smoking in as much depth as possible .

And finally, this study teaches us about confounding variables, or variables that are correlated with education and smoking and may be hidden. While we can’t say that the correlation between education and smoking is spurious, or have nothing to do with one another, it is an important reminder that even the strongest relationships have deeper roots connecting them together.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Smoking and Education:


I seriously don't understand these stats. I see almost everyone smoking in my college. I assume more than 80% of them will finish education as graduates and I am quite sure(as per stats), no more than 2.5% will leave this habit. So how is is that educated people are smoking less?

I think there is no proper connection between smoking and education. It depends on the individuals to give up things like smoking, drugs nd pain killers addiction

Everybody knows how injurious is smoking to our health, no matter, the person is literate or illiterate. It is all up to the person's attitude and thinking.

As I have seen people who are illiterate but they don't even touch the smoking product and on the other hand I have seen people who are well educated but have been addicted to this bad habit!!

Everybody knows how injurious is smoking to our health, no matter, the person is literate or illiterate. It is all up to the person's attitude and thinking.

I think people who are more likely to get higher degrees generally come from money (resources), are more competitive, are more like to want to keep up appearances (pride), and with that there is a competition to be successful among those with a higher income, health is one of those success factors. So if they do smoke, they can afford the resources to help them quit, and they're incentivized more through competition and peer pressure to not smoke.

Also, being poor sucks. But it probably has a mindset and attitude component to it too.

There are different life paths one can take. You can see at one end of the spectrum someone who doesn't take care of themselves and the people and things around them. They look and act in unhealthy ways. Then at the other end of the spectrum, you can see people who care a great deal about cultivating a healthy, full life. Where do you want to be on that spectrum?

Thanks for the informational article telling about the disadvantages of smoking. This article is really helpful.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Clap along Sociologists, Get Happy! | Main | Sociological Advice for Graduates »