The Complex Relationship Between Income and Smoking

Shatakshee Dhongde
About This Project

By Gita Smith

Headshot of associate professor Shatakshee Dhongde in front of a chalkboardEconomists have long studied how personal income and relative deprivation affect social outcomes such as education, bullying/victimization, and health.

A new study by Georgia Tech School of Economics professor Shatakshee Dhongde finds evidence that smoking is linked to perception of one’s own wealth and economic standing compared to others in society. Dhongde, with co-authors Lucio Esposito and Christopher Millett, used data from the 2012 Health and Nutrition Survey in Mexico, a nationally representative study of 45,000 Mexicans, to shed light on the links between income and smoking.

Three factors proved to play a statistically relevant role. Absolute wealth (what a person has, without comparison to others’ wealth), relative affluence (positive feeling about what one has, compared to others) and relative deprivation (perceived disadvantage or financial inferiority relative to others). The study states, “Our results indicate greater smoking at higher levels of absolute standards of living (wealth) and also higher levels of relative deprivation. The study also found lower smoking at higher levels of relative affluence (perceiving oneself as better off than others).”

Why are absolute wealth and relative deprivation risk factors, while relative affluence is a protective factor for smoking? The paper suggests that relative deprivation leads to anxiety and stress related to lower status, and psychosocial stressors trigger smoking. One psychosocial stressor positively associated with smoking is the degree of perceived inequality of one's relative position in society in terms of work opportunities, living conditions, and ability to provide for children.

Relative affluence can be hypothesized to be a protective factor for smoking through a sense of accomplishment and appeasement—or, at least, a shield from psychosocial stress, due to the existence of a “buffer” between a person and less fortunate others. Previous Mexican data found that smoking prevalence and intensity were generally higher among more educated and wealthier individuals, and this study found a trend toward decreasing in men and a rise among women. The study concludes that to avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths due to smoking, understanding the socioeconomic drivers of smoking is key, in particular for a country like Mexico with high national and sub-national inequality indicators.

The paper Smoking Habits in Mexico: Upward and Downward Comparisons of Economic Status is available at:

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