Does Working a Job During College Lead to Drinking and Smoking?

The rate of students holding a job during college has risen from 45% in 1959 to 61% in 2011. Substance use also becomes more prevalent during this time, with 40% of students saying they have been drunk and 14% saying they have smoked a cigarette in the past month.

Since both employment and substance use are common among college students, understanding if, and how, the two relate is important for students, parents, colleges, and employers.

Research in adolescents shows that those with jobs are more likely to drink and smoke, and that association grows based on how many hours they work per week.

So is there a link between working a job in college and how much someone smokes or drinks?

Rose Bono, a research assistant at the Department of Health Behavior and Policy, and health behavior and policy researcher Dr. Andrew Barnes, teamed up with COBE director Dr. Danielle Dick and Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics director Dr. Kenneth Kendler to conduct a study on the relationship between substance use and employment in college students based on data from Spit for Science.

The study, published recently in Substance Use and Misuse, examined how many hours a week each student worked and how much money they earned compared to how frequently they reported drinking and smoking.

Researchers found that weekly earnings did not predict drinking frequency. Work hours did predict greater odds of drinking less than once a week (working ten hours or more increased the likelihood of drinking less than once per week over the past month by 16%), but were not associated with drinking once a week or more.

Each 10-hour increase in weekly work hours and $50 increase in weekly earnings predicted modestly greater odds of drinking 1–4 drinks per day, but did not relate to drinking 5+ drinks per day. Increases in hours and pay did not related to smoking frequency.

In other words, employment may play a role in substance use, but work hours and earnings are likely only small parts of a larger web of influences on drinking and smoking.

These findings, which are a new addition to the literature on substance use in college students, suggest that interventions to reduce freshman drinking and smoking may not be particularly effective when targeting employment characteristics.

Nonetheless, college behavioral health counselors and others working with students may still wish to include employment characteristics in discussions about substance use, since employment may become a greater demand as students continue through school and may have a larger effect on moderate drinkers compared to heavy drinkers.