Exploring Why the Highly-Educated Don't Smoke

May 27, 2014

Optimism in childhood may account for a low percentage of smokers among highly-educated adults.
Credit Valentin Ottone / Creative Commons
"It turns out that everyone knows that smoking is bad for your health."
Vida Maralani

Adults with college degrees are much less likely to smoke than the rest of the population. A new Yale University study searches for the reasons why.  

According to a 2009 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of adults who have a high school degree or less smoke. Eleven percent of adults who have a bachelor degree smoke, and only five percent of people with graduate degrees or higher ever take up the habit.

The Yale University study collected 14 years of data to help explain why this disparity exists. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with intelligence or cognition.

"It turns out that everyone knows that smoking is bad for your health," said Vida Maralani, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale, and author of the report. She suspects that non-smokers possess, from an early age, a series of attributes that not only deters them from smoking, but also puts them on a path to college.

"You start thinking that it has to be characteristics of childhood, so things like optimism, decision making skills, what a psychologist would call self-control," Maralani said. "It really comes down to the kinds of emotional and social skills that a kid has [in order] to make good choices."

Maralani said the next step is to figure out which of these attributes deters a person from smoking later in life, so those traits can be reinforced in school and at home. The study appears in the journal Social Science Research.