Why do gays smoke so much?

How the dismal science applies to your life.
Aug. 4 2003 2:27 PM

Why Do Gays Smoke So Much?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

I've just learned from NPR's All Things Considered that in California, gay men and lesbians are 70 percent more likely to smoke than the general population. In a sterling example of why I try not to listen to too much NPR, reporter Sarah Varney immediately segued into the perceived need for more anti-smoking ads targeted specifically at gays.

In other words, Varney implicitly assumes that gays are either too stupid to have gotten the message that smoking is bad for you or too irrational to have modified their behavior accordingly. A more inquisitive reporter might instead have raised the obvious question: What good reasons might gays have to smoke more than other people?

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In four minutes of air time, the closest Varney came to addressing that question was to suggest that for gays, stepping outside for a cigarette can be a good way to meet people—as if the desire to meet people somehow differentiates gays from straights. At the same time, she managed to overlook the blindingly obvious: Gays are disproportionately childless, and childless people are more likely to smoke.

As a matter of fact, childless households (whether gay or straight) spend, on average, 56 percent more on cigarettes and alcohol than their childbearing neighbors. (Among households where the parents have some education, the discrepancy is even larger.) Nor is there anything mysterious about why. First, parents have extra reasons to live long and stay healthy, both so they can be there when their kids need them and so they can enjoy the company of their grandchildren. Second, parents have extra expenses—starting with diapers and continuing through college tuition—that leave less disposable income for cigarettes. Third, a lot of parents don't like the idea of smoking in front of their children.

That alone might be enough to explain why perfectly rational gays (along with perfectly rational childless straights) smoke more than their neighbors. But family size is not the only dimension in which gays—particularly those gays who identify themselves as such to pollsters—are different from straights. The openly gay face some social opprobrium. So do smokers. Maybe it's not too surprising, then, that out-of-the-closet gays and out-of-the-closet smokers are disproportionately the same people. (You can imagine the possibilities: "Now that my parents have learned to deal with my gayness, I might as well tell them I smoke.")

More speculatively, one might well imagine that nicotine, which is popular largely as a stress reliever, might be more useful in a life punctuated by discrimination, familial disapproval, and plain old cruelty. Or even that the people who lead such lives might—perfectly rationally—care less than the rest of us about how long their lives will last. I'm not sure how to test those hypotheses, and I'm not sure how plausible they are, but surely they're both more plausible and more respectful than the suggestion that gays need to see specifically gay-oriented advertising before they can understand that smoking is bad for them.

If you doubt that rational responses are relevant to addictive behaviors like smoking, consider this: MIT professor Jonathan Gruber and University of California, Berkeley, professor Botond Koszegi have studied the way smokers respond to cigarette tax increases. Here's what they find: As soon as a tax increase is announced, but before it goes into effect, smokers do two things: They stockpile cigarettes, and they cut back on smoking. The anticipation of higher prices in the future inspires smokers to adjust their habits in the present, both so their stockpiles can grow and so they can accustom themselves to smoking less. In other words, smokers respond exactly as you'd expect rational beings to respond.

Why, then, should gay smokers be the unique exception to the rule that smokers behave rationally? The answer is that there is no answer. Generally speaking, people have good reasons for the things they do, whether or not those reasons are visible to the folks at National Public Radio.

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