P-D 7/16/2010 Bill McClellan: “Could smoking save Social Security?”

Bill McClellan is a Libertarian in his views, especially when he starts writing about smoking. But his column today lauding smokers because they save the country so much on Social Security and Medicare is an argument I’ve seen before. It is also badly flawed.

Back in 2001, Philip Morris caused an international outcry after their Czech operation, which controlled 80% of the market, released a study concluding that smoking was a money maker for the government when balancing cigarette tax revenues against the costs to society of people living longer.

A quick Google search turned up an article from the Czechoslovak Prague Post titled Report says smoking has benefits that describes the Philip Morris-inspired report and notes fallacies in the argument. It’s reproduced in its entirety following McClellan’s piece below.

Just one more thought: A productive member of society, hopefully including you, can contribute long after retirement. My wife is now retired from teaching French but is not only an important part of my life, but has also become an innovative fiber artist, and is active in the local arts community in Ferguson.

It’s sad whenever anyone dies but suggesting it’s a good thing for society if people die earlier? That is crass and illogical. We want people to live long, healthy and productive lives, which is why I’m opposed to secondhand smoke and promote bicycling for local transportation.

Could smoking save Social Security?

Bill McClellan • bmcclellan@post-dispatch.com, 314-340-8143 Posted: Friday, July 16, 2010 12:00 am | (28) Comments

Medicare is going broke. There are disagreements about when it will be completely broke and how it can be fixed — really, if it can be fixed — but everybody agrees it’s going broke.

Same thing with Social Security. Private pensions, too. More and more companies are opting out of the pension business. 401(k) plans are the new thing.

For the most part, only public employees enjoy “defined benefit” pension plans, and that burden is becoming too much for state and local governments.

Just as baby boomers are preparing to retire, the whole notion of retirement is getting fuzzy.

Why not have a smoke and think about this?

Yes, a nice calming smoke. Tap that cigarette against the table, put it in your mouth, light it up, inhale, hold that smoke for a few seconds, and now, slowly exhale. You feel better, don’t you? You look cool, too. You really do. Sophisticated.

I am not suggesting that cigarettes will solve all of our problems, but think about Medicare and Social Security and pensions. Why are all these things in trouble? Why is the whole notion of retirement so problematic?

Because people live too long.

Nobody disputes that. When Social Security was founded, few people lived much past 65. Many workers didn’t live long enough to collect any Social Security. Those who did make it to retirement lived only a few years. A system like that will work.

When large numbers of people live 20 years past retirement, the system begins to break down. Obviously, the same thing happens with private pensions.

What if somebody were to devise a product that people could voluntarily take and would cut 10 or 15 years off their life expectancy? What if they would not only voluntarily take the product, but would pay hefty taxes on the product while they took it?

We already have that product. We just don’t appreciate it.

I thought about this when I saw the story last week that St. Louis County is spending $7.6 million from a federal stimulus grant to launch what is being called a “major assault” on smoking.

You don’t have to be a libertarian to think that government ought not concern itself with people’s private habits.

Let’s try to be dispassionate about this. Some personal choices should be discouraged. Drinking and driving, for instance. In the first place, you can kill or maim somebody else. In the second place, you can kill or maim yourself.

Society has legitimate reasons for discouraging this behavior. We do not want people to die in their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s. Those are their productive years. Those are the years during which they have family responsibilities.

So it makes sense to punish people who drink and drive. It makes sense to spend money to educate people about the dangers of drinking and driving. It makes sense to try to stigmatize this behavior.

But smoking? That behavior involves a long-term health problem. There is no societal purpose served in discouraging smoking. Some people might argue that smoking causes health problems, and those health problems are a drain on society’s resources. To an extent, that is true.

But so is this — everybody eventually will get sick and die. A huge chunk of the health care services you will receive in your lifetime, you will receive in the last weeks, maybe months, of your life. This is true whether you get that care at 65 or at 85.

Perhaps in a more rational society, that argument could be refuted. If we were to decide that death was a natural part of the cycle of life, and that at some point we ought not spend large sums of money merely to prolong the end of life, then one could argue that we spend more money on people who get sick and die than we do on people who simply grow old and die.

But we don’t. We fight death whenever it approaches, and if somebody argues that perhaps we shouldn’t, somebody else will yell about “death panels” and “killing grannie” and we quickly revert to the idea of spending large sums of money to prolong the end of life.

In other words, that end-of-life money is going to be spent no matter what.

So I say that if a person — an adult — wants to engage in behavior that will shorten his or her life span, the rest of us ought to be grateful. Maybe we don’t want to encourage smoking — that might be crass — but we certainly should not discourage it.

St. Louis County could find better ways to spend that stimulus money — maybe fund a campaign about the joys of eating tasty, high-cholesterol foods. Live better, not longer. That’s a message that society ought to be pushing.

Report says smoking has benefits
Report concludes that smoking is good for government finances

By Kate Swoger

Smoking may be bad for your health, but tobacco giant Philip Morris believes it’s good for government coffers.

The Czech arm of the multinational cigarette manufacturer has produced a study that concludes that smoking brought in about 5.8 billion Kc ($145 million) more than it cost the government in 1999.

The controversial report, commissioned last year by Philip Morris from consultants Arthur D. Little, took about six months to prepare.

It calculated the benefit to public finances by comparing the income brought in by taxes and savings from early deaths caused by smoking — 21.46 billion Kc — against the expense of treating smoking-related illnesses, absenteeism and lost income tax due to higher mortality — 15.65 billion Kc.

“These figures are part of the debate about smoking. Smoking is a very controversial thing,” said Marek Hlavica of Philip Morris, which controls about 80 percent of the Czech cigarette market. “To bring something new into the discussion … we initiated this study.”

But some medical experts question the report’s conclusions, arguing that it greatly underestimates the health-care costs linked to smoking.

Eva Kralikova, a smoking-prevention specialist at Charles University’s First Medical Faculty, estimates that smoking-related health-care costs are about two or three times higher than the Arthur D. Little figure of 12.5 billion Kc.

She also argues that the report’s supposition that lives are shortened by an average of 4.3 years is too low. Czech smokers — who make up almost 30 percent of the adult population — actually shorten their lives by an average of eight to 10 years, she said.

In March, Prime Minister Milos Zeman joked about the morbid financial benefits of smoking during a visit to India. He surprised his hosts by lighting up during a business seminar.

“In the Czech Republic,” he explained, “we have high consumer tax on tobacco products. So by buying cigarettes, I am basically increasing state revenues. It is also known that heavy smokers die younger, and then it is not necessary to pay them pensions.”

The Little report calculates that the state saved 1.19 billion Kc in 1999 on housing for the elderly, pension and social expenses and health-care costs due to smoking-induced deaths.

Kralikova finds the consideration distasteful.

“Following that logic, the best recommendation to government would be to kill all people on the day of their retirement,” she said.

Sicker lives
But she also questions the financial benefits of these truncated lives. Kralikova points to a sweeping study produced by the World Bank last year that countered the popular belief that early deaths of smokers save money, concluding that shortened, often sicker, lives are more expensive than the longer lives of nonsmokers.

Petr Sadilek, head of Prague’s Medical Information Center, is wrapping up his own study of the cost of treating smoking-related illness. He believes smoking accounted for about 22 billion Kc in health-care expenditures in 1999, about 9 billion Kc more than the Little report concluded.

“Philip Morris is starting to feel rising pressure to restrict or control smokers and smoking, which puts its profits directly in danger,” Sadilek said. “That is why they are trying to stress the so-called positive aspects of smoking.”

For its part, Philip Morris, which produces Marlboro, L&M, Petra and Sparta cigarettes, says it realizes the report will be debated. The detailed documentation of the report’s sources make it transparent and allow for such a critique, said Hlavica.

“Probably some people find it quite difficult to accept that smoking can bring anything [positive],” he said, emphasizing that the report is not meant as a comment on the social or ethical aspects of smoking.

“This is purely an economic study … nothing less, nothing more.”

But Sadilek points out that of the country’s 109,537 deaths in 1998, 24,897, or 22.7 percent, were caused by smoking.

“There is a Jewish proverb: He who saves one life saves the entire world,” he said. “Every life that we save is meaningful.”

— Krystof Hilsky contributed to this report.

Kate Swoger’s e-mail address is kswoger@praguepost.cz

7 responses to “P-D 7/16/2010 Bill McClellan: “Could smoking save Social Security?”

  1. I’m curious why Martin thinks this argument is illogical. I agree it is crass… But it seems logical enough to me.

  2. I don’t agree with Bill on this one, but I still love him.

  3. Marlene Bakken aka marbee

    ALL of the world’s oldest people are, or were, smokers! Kinda blows holes in the nanny state demonization of tobacco and smokers, now doesn’t it?

    • Marshall, I don’t know if the information you provide is reliable but in any case, Missouri GASP is not anti-smoker. A few of my best friends have been smokers. mogasp’s goal is freedom from exposure to secondhand smoke for its members, the public and employees.

  4. The fact is that the anti-smoking zealots claim that smoking costs taxpayers billions of dollars when most studies (not done by tobacco control) show just the opposite. Over the long term smokers cost less both in medical and retirement. It just punctures a hole in a lot of their arguments.
    Marshall Keith

    • Marshall, Why should you discount studies done by tobacco control scientists? That’s purely based on your own prejudices, since they are peer reviewed and the author’s credibility is at risk. Your own bias is blatant, calling your opponents on this issue “anti-smoking zealots.” It undermines your credibility when you fail to argue objectively.

  5. It is based on the fact that the meta-analysis is done on cherry picked studies discounting those funded by big tobacco, (who also can’t be trusted) Those studies were also peer reviewed. Ever heard of publication bias.
    Well all of the meta’s the publication bias was deliberate.
    The way they drown out dissenting views using what Enstrom, Kabat and Siegel call scientific McCarthyism.
    Can a real peer review process take place when these type of tactics are used?
    Marshall Keith

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