Quitting is easier if your pay is higher, a study claims, at least for men without university education. Credit: rangizzz/Shutterstock

Here's the best reason ever why your boss should give you a pay raise: Tell them if they pay you more money, you'll stop smoking. I mean they don't want you to get cancer do they? Statistically speaking, it could be true, even if the money isn't conditional on quitting. To be fair, the effect is subtle, and there is that little thing about needing to be a smoker in the first place. Still, even if it doesn't get you a bigger paycheck, the correlation may have implications for social policy.

The claim that higher pay helps people quit tobacco is hardly obvious. After all, the extra disposable income gives smokers the opportunity to indulge their addiction further. On the other hand, the association between poverty and smoking is well established.

Dr. Juan Du of Old Dominion University and Professor Paul Leigh of the University of California, Davis, wanted to explore the factors that influence quitting smoking, rather than the much more studied risk factors for starting. Using data for people aged 21-65, they looked to see how income influenced outcomes.

"We assume that people begin smoking for reasons other than wages," said Leigh. "About 90 percent of smokers in the United States started smoking before age 20, so the data captured a sample of most full-time workers who have ever smoked."

Du and Leigh compared individuals' wages each year with whether they smoked the year after. The effect was hardly overwhelming, but in the Annals of Epidemiology the pair report, “We found some evidence that low wages lead to more smoking in the overall sample and substantial evidence for men, persons with high school educations or less.”

“Results indicated that 10% increases in wages lead to 5.5 and 4.6 percentage point decreases in smoking for men and the less educated,” they add. “They also increased the average chance of quitting among base-year smokers from 17.0% to 20.4%.”

The fact that women's smoking was apparently uninfluenced by wages raises questions as to how solid the effect may be. If real, it may have less to do with disposable income than the sense of self-worth associated with higher pay, since increased family income from sources besides their own wages did not seem to help men quit.

Nevertheless, Du and Leigh point out that American states with higher minimum wages and unionization rates have lower rates of smoking, lending some support to their conclusions, although there are many confounding factors to consider.

As uncertain as the results may be from this study alone, Leigh and Du have previously demonstrated negative health effects from low pay and shown these can remain after retirement. Leigh said, "Our findings add to the existing body of epidemiological literature showing that lower income predicts poor health habits. They also show that higher minimum wages could reduce the prevalence of smoking."

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