It’s Not Ignorance That Makes Uneducated People Smoke
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It’s Not Ignorance That Makes Uneducated People Smoke


So there’s a new study trying to understand the link between education and smoking.

It Starts Before School

It’s a sort of well-known fact that adults with college degrees are much less likely to smoke than those without them. And yet this team of researchers discovered that these differences appear as early as age 12—long before kids hit higher education. In other words, educated people don’t not smoke because they’ve been educated, as it is typically presumed; instead, this new research suggests, positive choices related to one’s health and education are anchored in circumstances and choices made very early in life. 

According to this new research, a child’s academic ability, socioeconomic background and family expectations—as well as the educational aspirations of that kid’s peers—are some of the key circumstances influencing a young person’s life choices, which in turn affect his or her decisions in adulthood.

The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent

It makes me think back to my own experiences as an adolescent, and how I skated the line between being “good” and “bad” (as I think a lot of kids do). Though I was never really a smoker, I hung out with the kind of kids who were. Sure, I knew that smoking was “wrong,” but well, I wanted to fit in and, hell, smoking felt good to me. As far as education, I liked learning and generally did well in classes marked for the “gifted and talented” but intellectualism wasn’t exactly encouraged in my working-class community. My parents hadn’t gone to college, and my older brother had dropped out of school in the 10th grade. I don’t remember any of my close friends talking about plans for college. I suppose I felt ambivalent about my future, knowing my family didn’t have any money and fearing that no one expected me to continue my education. 

In other words, I was exactly the kind of kid that this research could have helped. The way I see it, research like this might assist us in designing more effective interventions—more effective than, say, the smoking cessation classes that I was forced to take. The one time I can remember being assigned smoking cessation, I had to miss cheerleading or drama or whatever positive after-school activity I might have otherwise attended to be taught the dangers of tobacco use alongside the other “bad” kids. Whereas effective interventions develop organizational and interpersonal skills as well as a feeling of self-efficacy, smoking cessation was a shame-y waste of time.

Leading by Example

Kids who don’t smoke and stay in school have been given the motivation and encouragement to follow a set of rules. They’re young people who learn how to tolerate feelings and delay gratification. Since punishments and bribery are ineffective, kids need to be taught life skills by positive role models in and out of school or through extracurricular activities. It’s that or get lucky enough to develop them years later, sitting around in a church basement or at a coffee shop with a sponsor.

Luckily for me, I had a high school guidance counselor who took special interest in me. My junior year, I won a modest scholarship for coming in second place in an essay contest sponsored by our local chapter of The Veterans of Foreign Wars. In spite of our socioeconomic circumstances, my mom supported my decision to attend a pretty fancy college. With her help, I paid for my entire first year with scholarships and other merit-based aid. When alcohol became the issue that it did, having an education made it easier once I sought help—not necessarily because I was “smarter” as a result of all those multiple degrees, but because I was able to tap back into the visions of myself and my future that my educational experiences had fostered (and also, hey, I looked good on paper).

Properly Planted Roots

It’s somewhat ridiculous to think that people smoke or make other “bad” choices because they just don’t know that they’re bad, but that’s exactly what many assume. I’m all for personal responsibility—especially once a child has become an adult—but I’ve also long respected the fact that the decisions we make as adults are rooted in our earliest experiences, circumstances over which we usually have little or no control.

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.