Smoking's relationship to education disentangled

One seemingly plausible explanation might center on the assumption that Americans with more education are more likely to be exposed to or to become more appreciative of scientific data showing the correlation between smoking and negative health outcomes. But there isn’t a lot of support for that hypothesis in the data.

For example, a few years ago, Gallup asked Americans about the harmfulness of smoking. About nine in 10 Americans with college degrees said that smoking is very harmful. But the percentage who say smoking is very harmful among those with high school degrees or less is 81% — lower, but not substantially so. In other words, if all Americans suddenly became college graduates, the perception of the harmfulness of smoking would rise marginally, but not significantly. Most Americans with lower levels of education are already aware of smoking’s negative effects on health, so going to college isn’t going to have much effect on that front.

Other, more complex research studies also cast doubt on the hypothesis that increasing those getting college degrees in American society would significantly decrease smoking. Smoking behavior appears to begin before a young person has a chance to get higher education. Childhood factors apparently lead to educational attainment and smoking behavior without a necessary causal link between the two. The environment in which one grows up — including parents and peers — appears to be the significant factor for smoking and educational attainment. If everyone in their late teen years suddenly went off to college to get a BA degree, it would be too late for most to affect their smoking behavior.