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Raising worker pay reduces smoking

Reynolds is now focusing solely on 'brand growth' in the U.S. market.Reynolds is now focusing solely on 'brand growth' in the U.S. market.
Reynolds is now focusing solely on 'brand growth' in the U.S. market.

Worker advocates have a new reason to push for higher wages: raising worker pay could reduce smoking rates.

A new study from researchers at University of California, Davis published in the August issue of Annals of Epidemiology found that a 10% increase in wages led to about a 5% decrease in smoking rates among male workers or workers who have a high school education or less—typically those who hold low-wage jobs. The pay hike also improved their overall chances of quitting smoking from 17% to 20% over the course of the study.

For the study, the researchers examined data from 1999 to 2009 on wages, smoking status, and state of residence for full-time employees ages 21 to 65 years. They excluded people under 21, since wages don’t change much for that group, and left out people who had never smoked (since the goal of the study was to evaluate influences on quitting rather than starting smoking).

Some have suggested that higher rates of smoking reduce wages for individuals, says study senior author Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences and researcher at the Center for Healthcare Policy and Research at UC Davis. “We tried to look at it the other way around; it’s low wages that cause smoking.” Leigh and lead author Juan Du, who received her doctoral degree at UC Davis, examined data from states with changes in minimum wage and unionization rates—which are often directly correlated with wages. Their analysis found that, overall, smoking prevalence was lower in states with higher minimum wages or higher rates of unionization.

It’s hard to determine a precise explanation for this relationship, but there are a few possibilities. “Wage increases make you feel better about yourself. If you have a better outlook on life, you think, ‘Ok, well maybe now’s the time to quit smoking,'” Leigh told Fortune. “Generally if you raise wages, there’s less poverty—at least among people working—so people have less stress associated with poverty.”

A reduction in stress can motivate someone to give up the habit, Leigh said. “I always tell my students, ‘If you’re a smoker, are you gonna quit during finals week? No. You’re going to wait until you feel more relaxed, more future-oriented, a little more satisfied with your life.'”

Leigh also suggested a more “esoteric economic’ argument: A smoker may think, “If I continue to smoke, I’ll have to miss more days of work.” If you earn a higher salary, you have more incentive to avoid missing work. “It’s the ‘if you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’ argument,” Leigh says.

The reverse is also true: If you have something—higher pay—you have more to lose. Leigh also speculated that men are more prone to tie self-worth to pay, which means there’s an increased likelihood for risky behavior among men working low-paying jobs. So, the thinking goes, men making more money may be less likely to engage in dangerous activities.

But what about all those tales of high-flying financiers dabbling in cocaine? Leigh says that the study focused on low-wage earners and that the relationship between income and risky behavior may not be strictly linear.

The study’s results are certainly noteworthy, as the debate over the minimum wage rages nationwide. “What we’re trying to point out is there’s a public health benefit associated with increasing the minimum wage,” Leigh said.