By Raya Muttarak, Research Scholar, IIASA World Population Program

  Some rights reserved by danieljordahl on FlickrFor many years social scientists have observed a connection between economic downturns and a reduction in both unhealthy behaviors and mortality—a paradigm known as “healthy living in hard times.” One possible explanation for such counterintuitive findings was that people when people lose their jobs, have more spare time to dedicate to physical activities. Moreover, under an increased threat of unemployment, those who were still employed might limit their smoking and alcohol consumption in order to reduce their chances of being laid off. So the general agreement among social scientists has been that we should not worry too much about the impact of an economic crisis on health and mortality.

Our current global economic recession is the worst economic recession in contemporary history, however. And in a new study we found out that in fact, its consequences for health are very different from previous economic downturns. Since 2008, the number of smokers has increased substantially along with the increase in unemployed people.

In the new study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, we analyzed the effects of the current economic crisis on smoking in the United States, using  data for around 2 million people from the Center for Disease Control’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey for 2005 to 2010. In contrast to previous economic literature, we found an estimated increase of around 600,000 smokers due to the economic crisis.

Our study took into account the increase of the US population, the pre-crisis trends in smoking prevalence and the change in the distribution of population by socio-demographic characteristics.

We did find that “healthy living in hard times” still holds true for the employed individuals. Perhaps for fear of being laid off due to insurance reasons, these people maintain their healthy lifestyle. On the other hand, once without a job, people either started smoking or relapsed, possibly because of stress related to their new economic situation.

© Alexander Babich |

In contrast to previous economic literature, the new study finds an estimated increase of around 600,000 smokers due to the economic crisis. © Alexander Babich |

Since smoking prevalence by employment status remained more or less the same as before the crisis, a sharp increase in the number of unemployed individuals consequently led to a massive rise in the number of smokers. This has counterbalanced the trend in declining smoking rate among the employed.

Two main lessons can be drawn from our findings. First of all, YES…. this time it is different. The magnitude of the crisis has substantially changed the share of those with and without a job, with the latter being much more likely to engage in risky health behaviors. This in turns reversed most of the conclusions drawn by the previous literature. Second, we should not underestimate the impact of job-related stress factors on healthy behaviors. The idea that joblessness could be seen as a holiday where someone can engage in self-empowering activities is nice and reassuring, but it is meant to fail when unemployment is essentially unexpected and unwanted.

Gallus S, Ghislandi S, Muttarak R. Effects of the economic crisis on smoking prevalence and number of smokers in the USA. Tob Control. 2013 Aug 16. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2012-050856. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23956058.

About the author
Raya Muttarak is a Research Scholar with the World Population (POP) Program. She came to IIASA in September 2011. Her current research covers three broad themes: 1) educational inequality and vulnerability and adaptation to climate change, 2) immigrant integration and ethnic inequality in education, the labor market and climate change adaptation, and 3) socioeconomic determinants of health risks and behaviors. More>>

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.