The Surprising Link Between Obesity And A Smoke-Free America

Public health requires a delicate, and sometimes impossible, balance.
Please don't smoke.
JGI/Tom Grill via Getty Images
Please don't smoke.

Smoking is just about the worst thing you can do for your health. It can cause cancer pretty much all over your body, tooth and gum loss, stillbirth, premature death, and many other awful things.

It's for these reasons that it has been bittersweet for researchers to discover that, actually, our successful campaigns to reduce smoking may play a role in the growing obesity epidemic.

After the 1964 Surgeon General's report confirmed that, yes, smoking does cause cancer, the number of tobacco-toking Americans rapidly declined. As of 2014, 16 percent of high school students and adults smoked, down from 42.4 percent in 1964.

Obesity, on the other hand, has more than doubled in a similar time period. Two-thirds of adults in America were overweight or obese -- 68.6 percent -- as of 2012.

While correlation doesn't necessarily indicate causation, Charles Baum, a professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University, and Shin-Yi Chou, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, were interested to see if the decline in smoking had any impact on the uptick in obesity.

Baum and Chou's study, published in the Review of Economics of the Household last year, examined how changes in human behavior have increased obesity, focusing on socio-environmental factors, such as food price increases, differences in physical demands at work, urban sprawl, racial composition, age distribution and decreased cigarette consumption. The study compiled almost 30 years’ worth of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, The Washington Post reported.

To their surprise, the study found that the decline in smoking can explain as much as 4 percent of the increase in obesity in the U.S. over 30 years. That might not seem like much, but was still the biggest driving factor that the researchers analyzed.

Quitting smoking isn't the only reason so many Americans are overweight.
Huffington Post
Quitting smoking isn't the only reason so many Americans are overweight.

Despite this research, medical experts aren't sold on the link.

The established connection between weight gain and smoking cessation aside, not all experts are convinced that the link between smoking cessation and weight gain is the significant driver of population-wide obesity.

The addictive properties of processed foods have a much more important influence on obesity, Dr. Aurora Pryor, director of the Bariatric and Metabolic Weight Loss Center at Stony Brook Medicine, who was not involved in the study, told The Huffington Post.

"People do replace smoking with eating," she said. "But I think it's a stretch to relate the decrease of smoking to the obesity epidemic." Pryor cited less time spent outdoors and more time spent on technology, drive-thru restaurants, and outsourcing physical labor in favor of sedentary activities, as possible contributing factors.

"The health benefit from quitting smoking is more of a positive thing than anything," Pryor stressed. Quitting smoking leading to obesity is just "a small pebble in a field of rocks."

What about the other reasons obesity is on the rise?

Obviously, smoking is not the lesser evil here and no one would suggest it's a tool we should employ in the fight against obesity. Still, the results from the study provide insight on how societal trends affect obesity, a battle that continues.

The latest reports indicate that 40 percent of U.S. women are obese and that rates of obesity are still rising in all adolescents.

While smoking cessation seems to contribute to obesity, the solution can be found in diet, according to experts.

"It is time for an entirely different approach, one that emphasizes collaboration with the food and restaurant industries that are in part responsible for putting food on dinner tables," said Dr. Jody Zylke and Dr. Howard Bauchner, editors of the medical journal JAMA.

Taking care of ourselves isn't easy, folks. As this study makes clear, it's a delicate balance.

5 Important Lessons From The Biggest E-Cigarette Study