Smoking: a matter of choice

Philip Morris report: Is the equation 'smoking kills = government savings' any more dodgy than the quasi-economic arguments rehearsed in the smoking debate by both sides?

Jennie Bristow

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It seems extraordinarily crass – even in the tobacco industry’s terms – for a cigarette manufacturer to laud the fact that smoking kills people off before they become old enough to be a burden on the state. But the anti-smoking lobby’s reaction to this PR blunder is scarcely more sensible.

A report commissioned by tobacco giant Philip Morris claims that the Czech Republic saves millions of pounds as a result of smokers dying before they can demand healthcare or housing for the elderly. ‘Following that logic’, responded Czech public health campaigner Eva Kralikova, ‘the best recommendation to governments would be to kill all people on the day of their retirement’ (1).

Philip Morris has responded defensively, saying that the report was compiled merely as a cost-benefit analysis, and that it ‘deeply regrets’ suggestions that smoking has beneficial economic effects (2). Matthew L Myers, president of the US Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, stated that ‘Philip Morris’ cost-benefit analysis of the consequences of smoking represents not only bad economics, but also a callous disregard for life’ (3).

No doubt there is some dodgy maths afoot here – and only the most naive believe that Big Tobacco has people’s health and wellbeing at heart. But is the equation ‘smoking kills = government savings’ any more dodgy than the quasi-economic arguments rehearsed in the smoking debate all the time – by both sides?

Anti-smoking campaigners, occasionally sensitive to the argument that they should not be telling people how to live their personal lives, regularly claim that smoking costs the health service loadsamoney – and that, therefore, smoking is not just an issue of personal choice, but one with broader social and economic consequences. The pro-smokers retort that the huge levels of taxation placed upon tobacco easily outweigh the cost to the health service of smoking-related illnesses.

As this phoney debate bats back and forth, two things become increasingly clear. Every statistic is so loaded with different agendas that you can never find the true answer; and the true answer is not worth having in any case, because the smoking debate has nothing to do with economics.

The smoking issue is about personal choice: full stop. Everybody knows that smoking is bad for your health – smokers know it, non-smokers know it, health professionals know it, and now the tobacco industry even recognises it. But if people want to smoke themselves into an early grave, what business is it of governments and other officials to tell them they cannot?

Defending liberty means defending the right to make the wrong choices – and while it is certainly not ‘right’ to smoke, it is far more wrong to stop people from making that choice. So let’s dump this quasi-economic puff, and save our breath for the real issues.

Read on:

spiked-issues: No smoking

Defend the Right to Make the Wrong Choices, by Mick Hume

(1) Fury over ‘benefits of smoking’ report , BBC News Online, 17 July 2001

(2) Smoking is cost-effective, says report, BBC News Online, 17 July 2001

(3) Statement of Matthew L Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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