Examination of how neighborhood definition influences measurements of youths' access to tobacco retailers: a methodological note on spatial misclassification

Am J Epidemiol. 2014 Feb 1;179(3):373-81. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwt251. Epub 2013 Oct 22.


Measurements of neighborhood exposures likely vary depending on the definition of "neighborhood" selected. This study examined the extent to which neighborhood definition influences findings regarding spatial accessibility to tobacco retailers among youth. We defined spatial accessibility to tobacco retailers (i.e., tobacco retail density, closest tobacco retailer, and average distance to the closest 5 tobacco retailers) on the basis of circular and network buffers of 400 m and 800 m, census block groups, and census tracts by using residential addresses from the 2008 Boston Youth Survey Geospatial Dataset (n = 1,292). Friedman tests (to compare overall differences in neighborhood definitions) were applied. There were differences in measurements of youths' access to tobacco retailers according to the selected neighborhood definitions, and these were marked for the 2 spatial proximity measures (both P < 0.01 for all differences). For example, the median average distance to the closest 5 tobacco retailers was 381.50 m when using specific home addresses, 414.00 m when using census block groups, and 482.50 m when using census tracts, illustrating how neighborhood definition influences the measurement of spatial accessibility to tobacco retailers. These analyses suggest that, whenever possible, egocentric neighborhood definitions should be used. The use of larger administrative neighborhood definitions can bias exposure estimates for proximity measures.

Keywords: exposure science; modifiable areal unit problem; neighborhood; spatial scale; spatial zone; tobacco retailers; uncertain geographic context problem.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Boston
  • Commerce*
  • Epidemiologic Research Design*
  • Geographic Information Systems
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Residence Characteristics*
  • Spatial Analysis*
  • Tobacco Products*