Opinion: Daily Journal

The Social Benefits of Smoking

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Dr. John Staddon, professor of psychology at Duke University and adjunct scholar of the John Locke Foundation.

Smoking is risky. So are many other activities. Bungee jumping, motorcycling, skydiving, mountaineering, hanggliding, ocean swimming, soldiering — and promiscuous sex — all kill thousands of people every year.

But we hate smoking and despise smokers — and feel good about it. Discrimination against smokers is not just OK; it’s encouraged. Don’t feel sorry for those pathetic, shivering addicts puffing nervously on the street: It’s for their own good!

There’s historical precedent. The torturers of the Spanish Inquisition comforted themselves in much the same way as they turned the screws on heretics.

Like the Inquisition, the persecution of smokers has become institutionalized. There is a pending bill in Congress that would have the government regulate tobacco as a drug. (Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., opposes it.) The World Health Organization, in a new report funded by a billionaire ex-smoker, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is stepping up international pressure for government restraints on smoking. The British Medical Association urges more restrictions on TV and movies with smoking scenes — so much for AMC’s “Mad Men,” not to mention most movies through the 1980s.

Few object; after all, smoking kills some people. The BBC reports that 50 percent of cigarette smokers will die because of smoking, and half of these deaths will be in middle age. Of course, everyone dies, so the real issue is not death, but lost years of life. A recent, careful study (Baal et al., Plops – Medicine, February 2008) tells us how many: Dutch smokers can expect to live to 77.4 rather than the healthy-living’s 84.4 — seven lost years. The loss of years is a certain risk; the stats on causation are much less sure — after all, nonsmokers die of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases, but the tendency is to attribute all to smoking. And these are all correlations, not direct demonstrations of the cause of death.

So are these seven lost years reason enough for the governments of Europe to restrict the rights of smokers? Politeness, and perhaps the small risk from secondhand smoke, demands some smoke-free public spaces for nonsmokers. What should government do beyond that?

Not much, and here’s why.

Governments should act for the collective good, and the fact is that smokers save the rest of us much money. Baal et al. add new statistics confirming what a number of other researchers have found, that in terms of medical costs, smokers (and the obese) are cheaper than nonsmokers — lower not just in lifetime but in annual costs. The saving is not negligible: Smokers cost 37 percent less over their lifetimes than the healthy-living cohort.

If the cost of pensions is included, the amount smokers save us is, of course, even greater, not to mention the huge gift of taxes from smokers to the community at large.

If health care were entirely a private matter, its cost would be largely irrelevant for public policy. But of course in the United Kingdom most health care is provided by the state, through a service that is in financial trouble every year. Cost matters a great deal.

An economist might ask, what about opportunity cost — those years of productive work cut short by early death? Well, smokers tend to die at or after the age of retirement, so those years are few.

Probably smokers are productive for a larger fraction of their lives than nonsmokers.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that although smoking might be bad for the individual smoker, it’s fine for society as a whole. If smoking hurts the smoker but saves the rest of us money, if the risks of smoking affect only the smoker but benefit everyone else, then the government simply has no business trying to suppress smoking. Smokers save us all money; they may even be good for society.

Perhaps they should be praised rather than despised. After all, they give their lives for their country.