Study author Vida Maralani, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale, says it has long been known that those who have a college degree are much less apt to smoke, but the reasons were unclear.
The researchers used data collected over a 14-year study period.
The study, published in the journal Social Science Research, finds the differences in those who smoked by the level of education appeared as early as age 12, long before a college education is obtained. In addition, smoking status at age 16 predicts both completed education and adult smoking.
"This means that in order to reduce educational inequalities in smoking, we have to figure out exactly which characteristics before age 12 predict that a child will both not take up smoking and stay committed to school," Maralani says in a statement.
Maralani also says commonly assumed explanations such as college aspirations and analytical skills did not explain the links between smoking and education in adulthood. However, the kind of families in which kids grow up and children's non-cognitive skills may matter far more than currently realized in explaining the association between education and smoking in adulthood.
"Overall, educational inequalities in adult smoking are better understood as a bundling of advantageous statuses that develops in childhood, rather than the effect of education producing better health," Maralani says.