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Self-reported rates of cigarette smoking increased in minority 11th and 12th graders after affirmative action bans were implemented in their state, according to a new study published in PLOS Medicine by Atheendar Venkataramani of the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues.
Between 1996 and 2013, nine US states banned race-based affirmative action in college admissions. In the new study, researchers used data from the 1991-2015 US National Youth Risk Behavior Survey to investigate health behaviors, comparing changes in self-reported cigarette and alcohol use among students residing in states implementing such bans and those residing in states without bans. The dataset included information on more than 35,000 high school students.
Rates of cigarette smoking in the 30 days prior to the survey apparently increased by 3.8 percentage points in under-represented minority students after affirmative action bans were enacted (95% CI 2.0-5.7; p<0.001), but there was no change in smoking in non-Hispanic White students. There were also apparent increases in rates of past-month alcohol use, by 5.9 percentage points (95% CI 0.3-12.2; p=0.041), and of past-month binge drinking, by 3.5 percentage points (95% CI -0.1-7.2; p=0.058) in minority students, but null findings could not be ruled out after adjustment for multiple statistical comparisons. In a separate dataset of 71,000 minority young adults aged 19-30 years old, the researchers found that those who were 16 years old at the time of an affirmative action ban were 1.8 percentage points more likely to report current smoking (95% CI 0.1-3.6; p=0.037).
“Our study suggests that ongoing efforts to ban affirmative action programs in college admissions may have unanticipated adverse effects on health risk behaviors and health status within under-represented minority populations,” the authors say. “In doing so, they may exacerbate short- and long-run disparities in health outcomes.” The authors also note that their results, more generally, illustrate the importance of policies that shift socioeconomic opportunities as a key determinant of health.
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