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

7 responses to “Figuring Your Odds Of Premature Death [originally posted 1999-01-24]

  1. Death from secondhand smoke are statistical deaths. Handle the data a little differently and they disappear. But deaths from car wreck are indisputably real. The two should not be compared.

  2. Martin, Good to C U again! I disagree with the asteroid #s though: Any decent killer ’roid would kill more like 9 in 10 due to follow-on social disruption and disease.

    I’ll leave number crunching for others, but point out three things:
    The deaths from fires, guns, murders, etc are pretty indisputable. The cop doesn’t look down at your bloody corpse with the bullet hole in the forehead, and say “There’s a reasonably good chance, oh, maybe about 1 in 4, that he died of a gunshot.” ETS ‘deaths’ are a VERY different case as you well know.

    The 53k # is derived from a time in which ETS exposure was MUCH more universal and intense.

    Your relating of such numbers and exposures to the concept of it being “difficult to avoid tobacco smoke, which is still commonplace in Missouri, and you often don’t even know it’s present” is completely, and TOTALLY off-base: such “commonplace” exposures would only be on the order of .1 – .01 what they were when your death figures were derived.

    MJM , the 1k guy!

    mogasp comment: 993 characters! Sorry for the delay in approving posting, due to a glitch on my computer which tagged this and all other comments on this blog as “spam.” (!)

  3. Now the question comes-since we are all going to die, no matter what
    precautions we may take-

    Now the question comes-since we are all going to die, no matter what
    precautions we may take- is it justifiable for health advocates to force people to conform to certain lifestyles which
    those advocates claim will maximize the length of a person’s life?

    Death is inevitable, but health advocates such as the anti-smoking industry
    claim that they are justified in using punitive pressures of various kinds to force people to conform to their definition of “a healthy lifstyle”.

    Most people would probably agree that it is preferable for a person’s death
    to be a ‘natural” death but what does that mean? The only definition of a natural death, in medical science, comes from pathologists. Their definition is this; A natural death is a death that results from a
    natural disease process, distinct from a death that results from accident or violence.”

    All of the smoking related deaths involve natural disease process: cancer,
    heart disease, stroke, emphysema-these are all “natural disease processes”, Smoking-related deaths are “natural” deaths.

    mogasp comment: edited down to 1,135 characters from original 1,511.

  4. A couple of items in this blog don’t work. The first is the assumption is that still every year 53,000 people die from SHS. Even before smoking bans forced smokers outside in bars and restaurants this was an estimate. Most people who use this number in their pleas to pass smoking bans can’t tell you who or even when this was tabulated. Its been around for a couple of decades at least. Since then, nearly all work places voluntarily banned smoking. You can’t smoke in offices and now since bans have passed most other businesses except for a few bars. Half the country has some form or ban or another. Yet that number is still used. If you still use that number then you have to come to one conclusion – smoking bans don’t work.

    One other issue – I’m not a staunch defender of public smoking. I’m a staunch defender of freedom. Its the right of the individual to assume risk. If that person wants to skydive, scuba, ride a bike, swim in a pool or even spend time in a smoky bar.

    mogasp: Thanks for keeping this within normally accepted 1,000 character limit with only 979 characters (inc. spaces).

  5. MOGASP,,, there are several things wrong with your calculation that the odds are 1 in 55 for nonsmokers. That calculation is based on highly disputed selective spousal shs studies,, in homes with no advanced air cleaning technology. even antismoking researchers find that ventilation and filtration remove about 90% of smoke… so even if your studies were true, the risk if some nonsmoker spent their whole life in an establishment with modern air technology, the odds would drop to 1 in 550.. But even bigger drop if, like most exposure risks, the SHS risk drops with the square root of the exposure,, then 550 X550= one in 302,500. Now, since over 90% of all county establishments are smoke free, the population risk further drops to one in 3,025,000 for all county residents. this is not a major public health problem.

  6. That piece made dying a fun topic.

  7. harleyrider1978

    This is really fun, and oh-so typical.

    Einstein College recently studied folks who lived past age 95. The reluctantly reported result: “People who live to 95 or older are no more virtuous than the rest of us in terms of their diet, exercise routine or smoking and drinking habits.”

    Einstein College press release: … 78&pt=news

    Did you notice in link above that they just state that the very old smoked about as much as did people who died younger, with no detail given, although detail is given regarding eating, boozing, exercise, and so on? Well, when it came to publishing the abstract with the National Institutes of Health, they ignore smoking results entirely! They do say that smoking was studied, but make no mention whatsoever that smoking was not shown to impair longevity: again, as with the press release, precise detail is given regarding other studied factors, but when it came to smoking — the holy taboo of all holy taboos — they simply couldn’t bear even to mention their own finding!

    Here it is: the official NIH abstract:

    John Engles

    mogasp comment and apology for delayed approval:
    1,126 characters instead of 1,000 limit but I’ll accept it, especially since this and successive comments were only just discovered late yesterday, Saturday Oct. 29th, despite having been submitted much earlier in the month.
    Reason: My e-mail filter went a little berserk and decided to label all these comments as “spam!”

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