Myth Communication: Selling a Smoke-Free Society

Speech at Reason Weekend

(Page 7 of 7)

But even if we accept the premise that subsidized health care gives the government a license to meddle in activities that might lead to injury or disease, the social cost argument does not fly. Because smokers tend to die earlier than nonsmokers, they do not impose a net cost on taxpayers. In fact, they probably save us money.

As the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment noted in 1993: "Reduction or elimination of smoking would improve health and extend longevity, but may not lead to savings in health care costs. In fact, significant reductions in smoking prevalence and the attendant increase in life expectancy could lead to future increases in total medical spending, in Medicare program outlays, and in the budgets of Social Security and other government programs."

In his 1994 analysis of the issue, the economist W. Kip Viscusi found that "on balance there is a net cost savings to society even excluding consideration of the current cigarette taxes paid by smokers." Based on these calculations, he noted, one could argue that "cigarette smoking should be subsidized rather than taxed."

Strictly speaking, that tongue-in-cheek suggestion is no more absurd than the argument that cigarettes should be taxed because they drain the public treasury. This kind of analysis--which anti-smokers are quite fond of until it turns against them--is disturbing because it seems to treat individuals as a cost to be minimized or a resource to be exploited by the state. It's of a piece with the "public health" calculus that judges people by their contribution to collective measures of morbidity and mortality.

In his catalog of complaints about tobacco, James I said "the greatest sinne of all" was "that you the people of all sortes of this Kingdome, who are created and ordeined by God to bestowe both your persons and goods for the maintenance both of the honour and safetie of your King and Commonwealth, should disable your selves in both."

Thus, he forthrightly asserted that the function of the individual is to serve the state--i.e., him--and that the worth of anyone's actions hinges on how they affect what contemporary paternalists like to call "society as a whole." Nowadays, tobacco's opponents are a bit embarrassed to state this premise. As they should be.

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