The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Marriage vs. the Marlboro Man

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

For more than 40 years, a steady drumbeat of alarming medical reports has depressed tobacco consumption in the United States and elsewhere. Lower tobacco consumption can only be good news for physicians and public-health officials. But the drop in tobacco consumption might have been even sharper had recent decades not witnessed a marked retreat from marriage among young men and women in America and other Western democracies. The distinctive vulnerability of the unmarried to the blandishments of tobacco merchants stands out clearly in a new study of cigarette smoking in Canada.

The international team of American, Australian, and Canadian researchers who conducted this new study well understand the critical importance of reducing cigarette use. “Smoking is the leading cause of death in high income countries such as Canada,” they point out, noting that tobacco use constitutes “a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancer.” On the basis of 2005 numbers, they estimate that roughly one in five of all deaths in Canada are now due to smoking. Tragically, almost half of smokers die of smoking-related diseases, and the typical Canadian smoker who dies between the ages of 35 and 69 is losing on average more than 20 years of life. 

It is in the context of these sobering facts that the researchers scrutinize the social and geographical correlates of smoking evident in data collected in two cycles from February to June and from July to December 2010. These data indicate that marital status is a strong statistical predictor of tobacco use: the researchers report that when compared with married peers, single Canadians and widowed, divorced, and separated Canadians were almost twice as likely to smoke. (The Odds Ratio for single Canadians compared to married peers comes in at 1.86; the Odds Ratio for widowed, divorced, and separated stands at an almost identical 1.85.)

Of course, a bad habit need not mean a lifetime addiction. Smokers can quit and can dramatically improve their prospects for good health and long life by doing so. The researchers note that for smokers “quitting by age 50 can halve the lifetime risk, while quitting by age 30 can reduce the risk close to that of never smokers.”

Marital status not only predicts likelihood of smoking in the first place, but also predicts the likelihood of kicking the habit among those who have acquired it. Compared to Canadian smokers who persist in the habit, those who have quit are more than twice as likely to be married (Odds Ratio of 2.01).

The researchers lament “the persistence of high rates of current smoking and low quit rates in certain geographical areas and among certain socioeconomic groups in Canada,” interpreting that persistence as evidence of “the failure of current smoking cessation policies” among such groups. They accordingly call for “further study . . . to identify . . . what interventions may improve the situation.” Their own findings make it abundantly clear that interventions that foster enduring marriages may do a great deal to curtail lethal addictions to tobacco.

(Daniel J. Corsi et al., “Socioeconomic and Geographic Patterning of Smoking Behaviour in Canada: A Cross-Sectional Multilevel Analysis,” PLoSOne 8.2 [2013]: e57646. Web.)