The Public's Health: The Smoking Gap | The Public Health Post

Four in ten American adults smoked cigarettes in 1965; only 15% smoke today. That’s an impressive public health success, but it should not be the end of the story. There remain 40 million smokers in the United States who will suffer cancer and cardiovascular consequences from the dozens of harmful chemicals in tobacco products for decades to come, at a cost of $300 billion per year.
Fifty years ago, smoking prevalence for all education groups was clustered at that 40-45% mark. Five decades later, 6.5% of college-educated individuals continue to smoke, while the prevalence is more than triple that among those with a high school education or less (23.1%). These smokers tend to be disadvantaged socially and economically, and bear the majority of morbidity and premature mortality. Education seems to matter.
So we have lowered smoking overall, and in the process we have created a smoking gap, between those who are well educated and those who are less educated, between those with higher and lower incomes.
And the smoking gap is not restricted only to socioeconomic status. Geography is also at play. “Tobacco Nation,” a swath across the American southeast where 700 million pounds of tobacco are harvested annually and rates of smoking remain higher than elsewhere, suggests that policy, culture, and the persistent influence of the tobacco industry in this region has effects. At the county level, rural dwellers have higher rates of cigarette use, which may or may not result from intentional industry targeting. Workplace smoking bans will not lead to cessation among people who work outdoors or who are unemployed, two conditions notable in rural areas.
Other studies have documented the high tobacco retailer density in neighborhoods with larger proportions of African Americans, the ethnic group with the highest smoking prevalence. This causal relationship may work in both directions: more retailers sell tobacco because there are more tobacco users, and current smokers smoke more tobacco because there is heightened exposure to these tobacco retail environments.
What do we learn from the smoking gap?
First, this is part of a pattern which we observe in health. Efforts to fix the immediate health behavior (in this case smoking) fall short when we do not deal with the underlying problem—often one of social or economic disadvantage.  This has been well documented in medical sociology and is called the fundamental cause hypothesis.
Second, innovative interventions, implemented at the national, state, community, and local levels and focused on disadvantaged groups, provide the best chance to lower the smoking rate further. But it will take a series of such actions, based on evidence: setting minimum pricing policies across states; strategic partnerships with the 2-1-1 phone system whose callers are disproportionally low income, unemployed, and/or uninsured; reducing sales of untaxed or low-tax cigarettes; social branding interventions that target young adults and look to prevent smoking initiation; supporting the ban on smoking in public housing; expanding care access to smoking-cessation counseling and medication benefits via Medicaid expansion. Electronic cigarettes represent another avenue to improve the health of smokers, but there is little evidence that e-cigarette use leads to smoking cessation. There are certainly other approaches and policies worthy of consideration beyond this list.
Reducing the smoking rate to below 15% will be particularly challenging. But we know the best public health approach will need both to tackle the foundational problems that shape our health and to target the populations at greatest risk.

Michael Stein & Sandro Galea