We know Schenectady’s lower-income neighborhoods are food deserts — places where healthy, nutritious food is difficult to come by.
And we know the city’s smoking rate is significantly higher — nearly 40 percent, according to one 2013 survey — than the national smoking rate of 15 percent.
What might come as a surprise is how closely linked the city’s smoking and food desert problems are.
An interesting new study from the School of Public Health at the University at Albany finds that people forced to cobble together meals based on whatever’s available at food pantries and small corner markets are more likely to smoke than people with better access to healthy food.
The study surveyed 2,000 adults in Schenectady, and it confirms what I’ve observed with my own eyes.
In neighborhoods such as Hamilton Hill, Vale and Bellevue, cigarettes are easier to get than fresh produce. Corner stores are well-stocked with cigarettes, but fruits and vegetables? Not so much.
One eye-popping finding is that 43.5 percent of residents in Schenectady neighborhoods with low access to healthy food smoke, compared to 28 percent of residents in neighborhoods with moderate access to healthy food.
A map of the food environment of Schenectady, New York, 2014. (Courtesy UAlbany)
Which is a significant, and troubling, difference.
We know that poverty is linked to poor health — that poor people are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions such as asthma and diabetes, and that they do not to live as long as their more affluent peers. High rates of smoking exacerbates these problems.
One criticism I often hear is that low-income people who rely on food pantries and food stamps shouldn’t be spending their money on cigarettes.
Which is true enough, but does little to explain or examine why low-income people are more likely to smoke, despite their more limited means.
One theory, presented in the study, is that living in a “poor neighborhood food environment might be an additional source of stress, anxiety and hunger that would intensify nicotine addiction.”
In other words, the stress of living in poverty makes people more likely to smoke, perhaps as coping mechanism. And when life is stressful, it can be harder to quit smoking.
The University at Albany study is just the latest piece of research to suggest that anti-smoking efforts should be focused on those most at risk of smoking: the poor.
It also suggests some possible solutions — namely, that food pantries, soup kitchens and other anti-poverty groups should collaborate with anti-smoking groups to provide information about smoking and how to quit.
It shouldn’t be easier to get cigarettes than vegetables.
All too often, it is.
The good news is that this is a problem we might just be able to solve.
We know where Schenectady’s food deserts are, and we know that the people who live there are more likely to smoke. If we eliminate these food deserts, we might just be able to bring down its smoking rate, too. It won’t be easy, but it could go a long way toward making the city a healthier place.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at https://dailygazette.com/blogs/thinking-it-through.