New Research Links Affirmative Action Bans With Increased Smoking Among Minority Teens

A new study finds increased rates of cigarette use among 11th- and 12th-graders in states that passed laws against affirmative action.
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"We found increases in self-reported cigarette smoking among underrepresented minority 11th- and 12th-graders, coinciding with the years affirmative action bans were discussed, passed, and implemented," researchers write.

What happens to a dream deferred? New research offers an unexpected answer to Langston Hughes' classic query: The disappointed dreamers find solace in cigarettes.

New research finds that minority 11th- and 12-graders were more likely to start smoking if the state they lived in had implemented a ban on affirmative action programs that could help them get into college.

"These findings suggest that social policies that shift socioeconomic opportunities could have meaningful population health consequences," writes a research team led by Atheendar Venkataramani of the University of Pennsylvania.

The study, in the online journal PLoS Medicine, used data from a nationally representative survey of 35,000 ninth- to 12th-graders conducted biannually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Participants identify themselves by race and ethnicity, and report whether they engage in a variety of risky behaviors, including smoking.

The researchers focused on the nine states that passed laws between 1991 and 2015 forbidding colleges and universities from using race as a factor when deciding which applicants to admit. They compared the health habits of black, Hispanic, and Native American students living in those states with those of their counterparts in the rest of the United States.

"We found increases in self-reported cigarette smoking among underrepresented minority 11th- and 12th-graders, coinciding with the years affirmative action bans were discussed, passed, and implemented," the researchers write. Smoking rates among white students were not affected by these debates and policies.

Specifically, the team reports that "cigarette smoking in the past 30 days among underrepresented minority 11th–12th graders increased by 3.8 percentage points" in states where such laws were in effect during the calendar year in which these students turned 16.

What's more, in a separate study featuring more than 70,000 black, Hispanic and Native American young adults (ages 19 to 30), "We found that those who were 16 years old at the time the affirmative action ban was in place were more likely to report current smoking." In other words, the unhealthy habit they picked up in high school followed them into adulthood.

It is, of course, impossible to know precisely what prompted more minority students to start smoking. But it's reasonable to think that the affirmative action bans left many feeling less hopeful about their long-term prospects, and/or convinced they weren't valued by society.

Previous research has found that teens living in states where the cost of community college is relatively low were less likely to engage in a variety of unhealthy behaviors, including smoking. It seems that if you feel you don't have much of a future, pleas to avoid unhealthy habits don't resonate as strongly.

The researchers argue that as legislators continue to debate issues like affirmative action, they need to be aware that their decisions have serious implications for public health. Indeed, it's ironic that, even as one part of the government is working to discourage kids from taking up smoking, another is creating conditions that make the habit more likely.

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