TCS Daily

Puffed Up Savings

By Tim Worstall - November 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Smoking bans in public places seem to be marching on. First California, then New York and Ireland; Scotland has just announced their version and England did so this week. There are four small things to note from this rush to new legislation and one large one. Of the small ones a report by Vicki Woods in the Telegraph:

"Mayor Bloomberg is now hoping to extirpate the weed in private apartments. Anybody moving into a Manhattan condominium will soon have to sign a legal agreement not to smoke inside the confines of their own flat."

So at least part of the puritan crusade seems to have been motivated by the desire to tell people what to do, not the announced safety of others and the dangers of passive smoking. Well, that's a surprise isn't it?

The second is from a news report in the same paper on the English upcoming legislation:

"The Government also intends to close 'smoking rooms' at offices and factories where curbs have already been introduced. It will mean smokers will have to go outside if they want to light up."

Again, the motivation seems to be that Nanny knows best. Even when adults voluntarily congregate and voluntarily expose themselves to each other's smoke this cannot be allowed. The third is that the ban will extend to pubs if they serve food. Some might be a little confused by this as "pub" is short for "Public House" and so of course they are public spaces where the State has a right to legislate behavior. That view is incorrect, for the meaning of Public House is that it is a house, private property, to which the public may be granted access at the discretion of the owner. As an example, the Landlord has an absolute non-negotiable right to refuse service to anyone at any time for no reason whatsoever. There is no right of entry nor of expectation of service to a pub, something that really doesn't make it sound like "public property" within which the State has a right to tell people whether they may smoke or not.

The fourth is mere grubby politics. The Labour Party, the current ruling oligarchy in the UK, has at its root a series of what are called "Working Men's Clubs". These are generally not for profit membership only clubs in the Labour heartlands and they provide much of the constituency support that the party enjoys. They are, of course, excluded from this ban, all 4,000 of them. Apparently poisoning your own supporters is OK if that's what they want but the general public cannot be allowed to make such decisions themselves. It will also be interesting to see whether the similar but smaller network of Conservative clubs will also be exempt, indeed, whether private clubs of all kinds will be so.

The big point to note is that much of the argument in favor of this and similar bans has been that smoking costs the State money in the form of health care and that this is sufficient justification. Reduce smoking and save the Government money. Leave aside for a moment the implications of this, that our behavior should be determined by what is good for the State, that world view that we exist to serve rather than it existing to serve us (as Virginia Postrel said about George Bush: "He's just a hired hand"). The fact is that smoking does not cost the Government or the State money at all.

Yes, I know, jaws drop to the floor at such an outrageous statement, how can this possibly be true? In one sense of course it is nonsense. Health programs do indeed pay the cost of treating smokers and the diseases they inflict upon themselves. Yet what is missed in these calculations is that if someone did not die of lung cancer, of a heart attack, then that same program would pay for the treatment of whatever else it was that shuffled the individual off this mortal coil. A sad but true fact is that we all do indeed pass on and the way we have the Western World organized at present our health treatment in our old age is paid for by some version of the State, ultimately funded out of tax revenues. What do you think costs more, what do you think swallows more tax dollars, treating lung cancer as best one can or the total medical treatment over the seven years of extra life that the smoker (statistically speaking) has denied himself?

Perhaps for medical treatment on its own the costs do outweigh the savings. Add in the numbers from the pension systems as well and the answer is clear. Early death saves the State a fortune and whether you call it the Social Security Trust Fund or the more usual pay as you go pension systems makes no difference. That seven years under the ground rather than collecting checks means that smoking, when properly accounted for, is a net benefit to the Government accounts and this is before we even consider the extra taxes that smokers pay.

I agree that this is a rather macabre way of looking at the world, cost benefit analysis of the Government accounts with reference to the way in which people kill themselves. Macabre or not it is also useful for it does point up a rather perverse result. If we are indeed to consider ourselves as servants of the State, automatons whose behavior should be determined by what is good for it, not what is good for ourselves (as we determine, of course, guided by our desires), then we should all be smoking like chimneys for it would most certainly solve the Social Security financing problem.

There are any number of arguments one can make about smoking, about the liberty to do as one wishes, about the politesse of making others smell of smoke, the illiberalism of enforcing bans in private property, whether passive smoking is indeed dangerous or not, the rights or wrongs of the State protecting us from our own behavior. But the one argument we cannot make (or most certainly should not) is that cutting smoking saves the Government money and the reason is, quite simply, that it is not true.

A TCS contributor, find more of the author's writings here.


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