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New Research Shows Increases in Minimum Wages Lead to Decreases in Smoking

Lower-wage workers who receive a $1-an-hour raise due to an increase in the minimum wage reported a 4 percent decrease in smoking, according to new research. Based on other papers in the review, there could be other benefits to raising the minimum wage, including increasing birth weight of babies of lower-educated mothers and an improvement in mental health.

The study was conducted by senior author J. Paul Leigh, a professor of health economics from the University of California Davis, along with co-authors Juan Du, associate professor of economics at Old Dominion University, and Wesley A. Leigh, a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Nevada, Reno. They conducted a meta-analysis of 15 "high-quality"studies on minimum wages and public health from the United States and United Kingdom covering 1995 to 2016.

The researchers investigated outcomes including self-rated health, alcohol abuse, absence from work, obesity and depression. The one consistent across all studies was that increases in minimum wages resulted in declines in smoking among low-wage employees. This was especially strong for women.

Based on other papers in the review, research suggests raising minimum wage:

  • Did not lead to increases in unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol abuse.
  • Resulted in decreases in subjects reporting depression, self-assessed poor health and absence from work due to illness.
  • Resulted in fewer low-birth-weight babies born to female low-wage workers.

The minimum wage has been hotly debated among policymakers, with some states opting to raise theirs above the U.S. rate of $7.25 per hour. Supporters argue the increase raises workers from poverty.

Others see drawbacks in an increase.

"Those against raising the minimum wage cite negative effects on employment and hours of work," Du said. "That employers respond to the higher minimum wage by cutting number of workers or the hours they work."

"Our study provides another potential benefit of raising the minimum wage, which adds another dimension. In our previous study that examines the relationship of minimum wage and absenteeism due to illness, we found that raising the minimum wage leads to fewer days absent."

Leigh expects many more studies on the impact of minimum wages on the population's health. Increases in minimum wages create "natural experiments" by allowing researchers to compare low-wage workers in states that raised minimum wages with states that did not.

"It is uncommon to see minimum-wage-effects research that focuses on difficult-to-measure factors such as worker health, even though a less-healthy workforce can be a significant drain on productivity and finances," Leigh said. "Our review shows that researchers are increasingly gaining this focus."

According to Leigh, the low-wage worker population has steadily grown in the U.S. over the past 17 years.

"Our results support raising minimum wages because it can lead to reductions in smokingthat, in turn, can ultimately lead to reductions in medical spending," he added.

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