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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Income and Lifestyle Changes

Charles Baum at MTSU and others have been doing some interesting work looking into whether the reduction in smoking amongst adults is one of the causes for the increase in obestiy rates. I think Baum has a picture in one of his papers that shows the smoking rate equaled the obesity rate sometime in the late 1980s and then pretty soon the obesity rate is the same as the smoking rate was forty years ago.

A recent Harris Interactive report contains data on telephone interviews over the past twenty years. The data are self-reported rates of smoking, obesity, and seat belt usage. Self-reported data are notoriously bad, but I went ahead and put them through the econometrics grinder.

Here's a picture:

If anything, it looks like seat belt usage correlates a lot stronger with obesity than with smoking. If seat belt usage and rich food are normal goods while smoking is an inferior good, then the income growth over the past thirty years might be driving all of this.

Here's a correlation matrix:

| smoke obese seatbelt
smoke | 1.0000
obese | -0.7891 1.0000
seatbelt | -0.8116 0.8420 1.0000

Throw in nominal U.S. per-capita income (measured in thousands) and here's what we get:

| Robust
smoke | Coef. Std. Err. t P>|t|
income | -.2710229 .0530494 -5.11 0.000
_cons | 31.89393 1.187927 26.85 0.000
| Robust
obese | Coef. Std. Err. t P>|t|
income | 1.185575 .0883584 13.42 0.000
_cons | 41.69962 1.939743 21.50 0.000
| Robust
seatbelt | Coef. Std. Err. t P>|t|
income | 2.440006 .3936596 6.20 0.000
_cons | 10.60322 10.35289 1.02 0.319

What does it all mean? Income has a negative correlation with smoking, a positive correlation with obesity and a greater influence on seatbelt usage. It is not surprising that income would drive a lot of what is going on, after all economic man responds primarily to income and prices. As the price of cigarettes continues to increase, both nominal and health related, there are fewer people smoking. Other public policies, like banning cigarette advertising, and public information, such as the dangers of smoking and the benefits of seatbelts, also play a role but they are likely secondary and tertiary effects.

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