The Corner

Smokers Earn Less Than Non-Smokers, but That Doesn’t Mean They’re Discriminated Against

Did you know there is a large smoker/non-smoker wage gap? Well, of course there is. Why wouldn’t there be? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 5.4 percent of adults with a graduate degree and 7.9 percent of those with a college degree are smokers. By contrast, a whopping 43 percent of those with a GED certificate smoke. For whatever reason, smoking today is correlated with low educational attainment (and a few other things that aren’t too great from an employer’s perspective).

That being the case, the campaign on Twitter and Facebook entitled “Don’t Let Big Tobacco’s Products Control Your Paycheck” is a crock. When “Truth,” the organization that sponsors the campaign, urges smokers to quit smoking and thus “close the wage gap,” it is asking smokers to confuse correlation with causation.

The organization points to a 2013 working paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta as proof that smokers earn about 20 percent less than non-smokers. But even the Federal Reserve study admitted that differing skills and credentials account for most of the wage gap. A more thorough study would likely find that nearly all the difference can be accounted for that way.

The campaign is thus at least as silly as the debate over the wage gap between men and women. President Obama repeated the wage-gap canard in his 2014 State of the Union Address: “You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.”

“That is wrong,” the president declared, “and . . . it’s an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work.” Hillary Clinton has made similar claims.

Here are just a few of the things Obama and Clinton didn’t say, but which are nonetheless true:

‐ Men and women aren’t doing the same work. For example, men are much more likely to take on dangerous or unpleasant jobs. They are thus almost 13 times more likely to be killed on the job than women. Yet nobody complains about the “death gap.”

‐ The 77-cent figure compares “full-time” work, defined as 35 hours per week or more, to full-time work. But on average full-time working men work longer hours than full-time working women. According to an analysis by economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, if one compares women who work 35–39 hours to men who work the same hours, the women actually earn more.

‐ Women are more likely to come in and out of the work force than men. This practice, which is largely a result of women’s greater child-rearing duties, is hardly conducive to career advancement. Some might fault fathers for failing to take a greater role in rearing children. But that does not make employers guilty of sex discrimination because they promote employees with more experience over mothers with less experience. Interestingly, single, childless women in their twenties out-earn similar men. Nobody argues that this is because employers are discriminating against childless young men.

What is most amusing about Truth’s campaign against the smoker/non-smoker wage gap is its suggestion that by quitting smoking employees can somehow close the pay gap. But quitting won’t magically cause a high-school dropout to have a college degree. Nor will an Ivy League grad somehow lose her degree if she takes up smoking.

So far no one has followed this logic by arguing that an effective way to boost a woman’s pay is for her to undergo what is now referred to as “sex-reassignment surgery.” But maybe that’s coming.

Gail Heriot is a law professor at the University of San Diego and a Member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


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