Is smoking plunging children into poverty?

If we feel it necessary to characterise ourselves as being “pro” or “anti” certain things, I would unambiguously say that I am anti-smoking. Smoking is a vile habit. I don’t like being around people who are smoking. And as a medical statistician, I am very well aware of the immense harm that smoking does to the health of smokers and those unfortunate enough to be exposed to their smoke.

So it comes as a slight surprise to me that I find myself writing what might be seen as a pro-smoking blogpost for the second time in just a few weeks.

But this blogpost is not intended to be pro-smoking: it is merely anti the misuse of statistics by some people in the anti-smoking lobby. Just because you are campaigning against a bad thing does not give you a free pass to throw all notions of scientific rigour and social responsibility to the four winds.

An article appeared yesterday on the Daily Mail website with the headline:

“Smoking not only kills, it plunges children into POVERTY because parents ‘prioritise cigarettes over food'”

and a similar, though slightly less extreme, version appeared in the Independent:

“Smoking parents plunging nearly half a million children into poverty, says new research”

According to the Daily Mail, parents are failing to feed their children because they are spending money on cigarettes instead of food. The Independent is not quite so explicit in claiming that, but it’s certainly implied.

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt already have guessed that those articles are based on some research which may have been vaguely related to smoking and poverty, but which absolutely did not show that any children were going hungry because of their parents’ smoking habits. And they would be right.

The research behind these stories is this paper by Belvin et al. There are a number of problems with it, and particularly with the way their findings have been represented in the media.

The idea of children being “plunged into poverty” came from looking at the number of families with at least one smoker who were just above the poverty line. Poverty in this case is defined as a household income less than 60% of the median household income (taking into account family size). If the amount families above the poverty line spent on cigarettes took their remaining income after deducting their cigarette expenditure below the poverty line, then they were regarded as being taken into poverty by smoking.

Now, for a start, Belvin et al did not actually measure how much any family just above the poverty line spent on smoking. They made a whole bunch of estimates and extrapolations from surveys that were done for different purposes. So that’s one problem for a start.

Another problem is that absolutely nowhere did Belvin et al look at expenditure on food. There is no evidence whatsoever from their study that any family left their children hungry, and certainly not that smoking was the cause. Claiming that parents were prioritising smoking over food is not even remotely supported by the study, as it’s just not something that was measured at all.

Perhaps the most pernicious problem is the assumption that poverty was specifically caused by smoking. I expect many families with an income above 60% of the median spend some of their money on something other than feeding their children. Perhaps some spend their money on beer. Perhaps others spend money on mobile phone contracts. Or maybe on going to the cinema. Or economics textbooks. Or pretty much anything else you can think of that is not strictly essential. Any of those things could equally be regarded as “plunging children into poverty” if deducting it from expenditure left you below median income.

So why single out smoking?

I have a big problem with this. I said earlier that I thought smoking was a vile habit. But there is a big difference between believing smoking is a vile habit and believing smokers are vile people. They are not. They are human beings. To try to pin the blame on them for their children’s poverty (especially in the absence of any evidence that their children are actually going hungry) is troubling. I am not comfortable with demonising minority groups. It wouldn’t be OK if the group in question were, say, Muslims, and it’s not OK when the group is smokers.

There are many and complex causes of poverty. But blaming the poor is really not the response of a civilised society.

The way this story was reported in the Daily Mail is, not surprisingly, atrocious. But it’s not entirely their fault. The research was filtered through Nottingham University’s press office before it got to the mainstream media, and I’m afraid to say that Nottingham University are just as guilty here. Their press release states

“The reserch [sic] suggests that parents are likely to forgo basic household and food necessities in order to fund their smoking addiction.”

No, the research absolutely does not suggest that, because the researchers didn’t measure it. In fact I think Nottingham University are far more guilty than the Daily Mail. An academic institution really ought to know better than to misrepresent the findings of their research in this socially irresponsible way.

4 thoughts on “Is smoking plunging children into poverty?”

  1. Frightening how one dodgy piece of research has been delivered by mainstream media as fact. Not only by the press but on daytime chat shows. How can you debate something as a reality when it isn’t a reality ? Especially when it is demonising a whole group in our society. Shame on us !

  2. It currently seems to be the norm–not the exception–to churn out junk science. Bovine excrement keeps hitting the media fans that spread it eagerly.

    E.g. the CDC crying “Wolf!” and presenting a seemingly alarming part of their data. Brad Rodu – Memo to the CDC: Tell the WHOLE Truth About E-Cigarettes
    And with their survey they (deliberately?) neglected to collect a rather important information: Did these children use nicotine at all?
    The cheapest disposable “vape sticks” usually don’t contain (expensive) nicotine. It seems reasonable to assume that children might buy this colourful junk for experimenting.

    Or take a closer look at the recurring waves of scaremongering about Freaking Formaldehyde.
    Yes, you can produce such amounts. But nobody would inhale that. Like nobody would eat thoroughly burned toast.

    I know, it sounds paranoid.
    Just take a closer look at the raw data and see for yourself.

  3. It’d be my guess it’s whiplash protection.
    The anti-smoking groups focused on the minorities. Mostly the poor minorities.
    The anti-smoking groups focused on raising taxes, supposedly to force people into quitting smoking. M
    The anti-smoking groups realized they are the cause for the increase in poverty, so they try now to blame the minorities and the poor for the results of the callous actions of the anti-smoking/tobacco/nicotine/vaping groups.
    Karma will get them in the end, especially with watchful people like the author willing to report. Kudos!

  4. I’ve recently seen The John Oliver Show and the topic was about smoking and the anti-smoking ads (and pics) posted on ciggy boxes in order to discourage smokers and make them quit. Look it up in youtube. It’s a well worth watch.
    Even though I smoke about a pack a day you will never see me advocating the use. Anyway back to the topic.
    In the vid you can see the example “PM (Philip Morris – the company/brand) went to court with Australia (the country) in order for them to remove the huge pics on the packs. And 9 out of 10 jury ruled for the pics to stay. PM then started threatening other smaller countries like Congo with the example that … blah it’s too long and I cant explain it properly. Watch the video.

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