Why Do Low-Income People Smoke More and Drink More Soda, but Drink Less Alcohol?

06/29/2010 05:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The idea of a tax on soda is being debated in New York and elsewhere. Will raising prices lower consumption, leading to better health among Americans?

In this equation is the fact that the tax will fall more heavily on low-income Americans, for whom a few cents have greater impact, and who in fact drink far more soda in New York City (that's adults). It is one (still) affordable pleasure.

Instructive in this regard is the simultaneous movement in New York to raise cigarette taxes, already the highest in the country, to $5.85. This would price cigarettes at $11 a pack in New York City, which has its own cigarette tax.

But here's a little-known fact. Although cigarette prices have been rising steeply for decades (they used to cost $.30 a pack in the early 1960s), mainly poor, less-educated people smoke them. According to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Heath, 34 percent of those without a high school degree -- and 31 percent of those with only a high school diploma -- smoke; 14 percent of college graduates do.

How does that work? Smoking is still a relatively inexpensive pleasure that less-educated and lower-income people are more susceptible to pursuing. In the process, as with sugary drinks (water is still, after all, less expensive) they seem less concerned about health consequences of these habits.

As for alcohol, I turned to the Discover Blog, "Gene Expression," by Razib Khan, and last month's post, "People of class drink alcohol." First off, the author expresses suspicion about claims that drinking alcohol is beneficial, because "these seem to be correlational studies (though not all), and there are also often conflicts of interest with the funding." (He's wrong, but that's for another day.) However, Razib indicates he personally likes "dark beer and white wine."

The post reviews the GSS data file. Khan notes that far fewer Protestants drink than Catholics and Jews (this is our Temperance legacy). Khan matched drinking with a vocabulary test score: 85 percent of those who scored 10 drank, twice the percentage of those who scored 0.

The blogger's response (keep in mind that he questions the benefits of drinking but, highly educated himself, likes to drink): "I was expecting it. That is, that the more intelligent, who scored high on a vocabulary test, would drink more than the dumb, who scored low ... I've rarely seen such a stark near-monotonic trend" -- that is, as scores rose, the likelihood of drinking rose directly. (P.S. Don't blame me for the "dumb" thing!)

Readers, please explain these results.

Hint: It doesn't make sense to combine those two old shibboleths -- smarter people get away with more bad things, smarter people get all the good things. And when a reasonable bottle of wine can be had for about the price of a liter of soda (as well as selling "three-buck chuck," Trade Joe's in NYC sells varietal wines for $5), and a fraction of the price of a pack of cigarettes, cost doesn't work either. Oh, and any explanations offered have to explain why, although lower status individuals are less likely to drink, a higher percentage of those who do have drinking problems.

Answer: Poorer and less educated people are more afraid of alcohol because they are more susceptible to public health and educational messages that portray alcohol as an uncontrollable substance they fear that they cannot control, as they feel out of control of many other areas in their lives.