Smoking and the widening inequality in life expectancy between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas of the United States

Arun S. Hendi, Jessica Y. Ho

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1 Scopus citations


Background: Geographic inequality in US mortality has increased rapidly over the last 25 years, particularly between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. These gaps are sizeable and rival life expectancy differences between the US and other high-income countries. This study determines the contribution of smoking, a key contributor to premature mortality in the US, to geographic inequality in mortality over the past quarter century. Methods: We used death certificate and census data covering the entire US population aged 50+ between Jan 1, 1990 and Dec 31, 2019. We categorized counties into 40 geographic areas cross-classified by region and metropolitan category. We estimated life expectancy at age 50 and the index of dissimilarity for mortality, a measure of inequality in mortality, with and without smoking for these areas in 1990–1992 and 2017–2019. We estimated the changes in life expectancy levels and percent change in inequality in mortality due to smoking between these periods. Results: We find that the gap in life expectany between metros and nonmetros increased by 2.17 years for men and 2.77 years for women. Changes in smoking-related deaths are responsible for 19% and 22% of those increases, respectively. Among the 40 geographic areas, increases in life expectancy driven by changes in smoking ranged from 0.91 to 2.34 years for men while, for women, smoking-related changes ranged from a 0.61-year decline to a 0.45-year improvement. The most favorable trends in years of life lost to smoking tended to be concentrated in large central metros in the South and Midwest, while the least favorable trends occurred in nonmetros in these same regions. Smoking contributed to increases in mortality inequality for men aged 70+, with the contribution ranging from 8 to 24%, and for women aged 50–84, ranging from 14 to 44%. Conclusions: Mortality attributable to smoking is declining fastest in large cities and coastal areas and more slowly in nonmetropolitan areas of the US. Increasing geographic inequalities in mortality are partly due to these geographic divergences in smoking patterns over the past several decades. Policies addressing smoking in non-metropolitan areas may reduce geographic inequality in mortality and contribute to future gains in life expectancy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number942842
JournalFrontiers in Public Health
StatePublished - Sep 7 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • inequality
  • life expectancy
  • mortality
  • smoking
  • urban-rural differences


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