Monthly Archives: October 2011

Figuring Your Odds Of Premature Death [originally posted 1999-01-24]

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Tony Palazzolo is an active member of Keep St. Louis Free and a strong believer in personal rights
Original caption from The Riverfront Times

The last comment on the previous blog 2011-09-19 P-D: Airtight smoking ban proves elusive in St. Louis County was from Tony Palazzolo on September 27, 2011.
         Tony is a staunch defender of public smoking and in the past has repeated Bill Hannegan‘s argument that “smoke eaters” provide better indoor air quality than smoke-free air.
         Among other things, his latest comment claimed that driving his 4-year-old son to various activities is, in his words,“hundreds if not thousands of times far more dangerous than a smoky bar.”

I responded in part: “Tony …. I don’t believe that statement can be sustained by the facts. The risk of premature death from different causes was calculated some time ago and, as I recall, SHS ranked higher than that from auto crashes, surprisingly enough, and among the top 4 or 5. I don’t have that data at my fingertips though.”

Subsequently, I did a search for that data on my computer and came up empty handed but fortunately, another website had captured my original post from back in January 1999, with my permission, and from that I was able to reproduce it below. It concludes that secondhand smoke is about twice as deadly as a car wreck. Please read on…..

Figuring Your Odds Of Premature Death

Senior writer, Harry Levins, posed the following question in the opening paragraph of his article on “Killer Asteroids” which appeared on page A3 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday, October 8, 1997:

The odds of dying violently are greatest when the agent of violence is (choose one):

1. A tornado.
2. A flood.
3. An asteroid.

Answer: An asteroid.

Harry Levins went on to explain that two Air Force officers say that “we’re more likely to perish from an asteroid strike (1 chance in 25,000) than we are from a flood (1 in 30,000) or a tornado (1 in 60,000).” The officers suggest that we spend $122 million-a-year, averaged over 20 years, to combat this peril: a total of $2.44 billion.

Some other causes of premature death listed for comparison in the sidebar
to the article were:

Food poisoning: 1 in 3 million.
Fireworks Accident: 1 in 1 million.
Venomous Bite or Sting: 1 in 100,000
Airplane Accident: 1 in 20,000
Electrocution: 1 in 5,000
Firearms Accident: 1 in 2,500.
Fire: 1 in 800.
Murder: 1 in 300.
Car wreck: 1 in 100.

Harry Levins, who admits to enjoying a stogie now and again, failed to consider the dangers due to smoking, generally recognized as the number 1 avoidable cause of death in the U.S., so let’s correct that omission by figuring the risks from both active and involuntary smoking.

Using the same method of calculation as the Air Force officers, the lifetime chance of dying prematurely from each of these causes is respectively:

Smoking: 1 in 2.

Involuntary Smoking [“Secondhand smoke”]: 1 in 55.

In other words, smoking is like taking a double-barrelled shotgun with one barrel loaded, holding it to your head, and pulling the trigger during your smoking lifetime, and paying upwards of $30,000 or more for the privilege.

Premature death from involuntary smoking is about twice as likely as dying in a car wreck and six times as likely as being murdered. TV is full of mayhem caused by motor vehicles or handguns. When was the last time death from someone else’s tobacco smoke was portrayed or reported on TV?


Killer Asteroid: The two Air Force officers arrived at their 1 in 25,000 chance of a person being killed by an asteroid during their lifetime as follows:

The earth gets hit by an asteroid big enough to cause a global catastrophy once every 500,000 years, so the odds of that happening in any given year are 1 in 500,000. Assuming such an impact kills 25% of the Earth’s population, that makes the risk from an impact 1 in 4. The odds of any individual dying from an asteroid strike in any given year are 1 in 500,000 multiplied by 4, or 1 in 2 million.

But since we live on average 75 years, these odds must be multiplied by 75 to obtain the risk of premature death in any given year. Hence the lifetime odds of dying from an asteroid strike is 75 in 2 million, or 1 in 25,000.

Active Cigarette Smoking: For smokers, who number about 50 million adults, the number of deaths is estimated at over 400,000 each year, so the annual risk is about 400,000/50 million = 1 in 125. Since most smokers don’t start until they’re about 14 we should calculate the 75 year lifetime risk over 75-14 = 61 years.

So the lifetime risk is 61 x 400,000/50 million = 61/125 = 1 in 2.

Involuntary smoking/SHS: The total U.S. population was estimated as 266,499,365 on January 1, 1997, so the total number of nonsmokers is 266.5 million less 50 million = 216.5 million. The estimated number of deaths among nonsmokers each year due to involuntary smoking is 53,000 (1), so the lifetime risk of premature death = 75 x 53,000/216.5 million = 75/4,085 = 1 in 55.


One good thing about the odds from a smoker’s viewpoint: they really don’t have to worry about any of the other risks that plague the rest of us! [Might be a good reason for having an all-smoker military. When bullets and shells are whizzing by they can laugh it all off, secure in the knowledge that it’s only smoking they have to fear!]

For the rest of us, it’s difficult to avoid tobacco smoke, which is still commonplace in Missouri, and you often don’t even know it’s present. And as Missouri GASP has been vainly claiming for years now, based on the kind of numbers above, we should be giving active and involuntary smoking much more attention than we do.

(1) Published peer-reviewed papers. Number accepted by American Heart Association, the majority of such deaths being attributed to heart disease, not lung and other cancers.

NOTE: We’d like to add to the utility of the above RISK LIST. If you have reliable sources of premature deaths due to other causes, such as dioxin, low level radioactive waste, low frequency electromagnetic radiation* [ARE there any estimated deaths due to these causes?] please let us know of them.

* For Missouri/St. Louis, not just the U.S. _______________

Copyright Martin Pion © 1997

Tobacco control/pro-health web pages may freely reproduce all or some of
the above, provided acknowledgement is given to Martin Pion and Missouri