Why you should care

Because everyone knows that smoking is bad for your health. But what if smoking is good for you?

Everyone knows that smoking is “bad” for us — at least from a health perspective. But you might be surprised to know that there is actually an upside to smoking. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and where there are costs, there are benefits.

As an economist interested in public policy, I often give talks on the economics of smoking. The one concept that never fails to upset people is when I mention the benefits of smoking. After one of my talks, a man approached me and said, “There are no benefits to smoking.”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard this response. However, it was the first time the person confronting me was smoking a cigarette. So I asked him: “If there are no benefits to smoking, why do you smoke?” He thought for a minute and said defensively, “Because I enjoy smoking.”

“Isn’t enjoyment a benefit?” I replied. He liked that response.

People often mistakenly think I am implying that there are no costs related to smoking. Of course there are costs — often very significant — both to the smoker and to others affected by secondhand smoke. But as substantial as these costs may be, they are also fairly obvious. Which explains in part why people routinely discuss the costs of smoking without ever considering the other side: the actual benefits.

How do you typically get hold of a pack of cigarettes? By taking money out of your wallet and buying it. Performing this transaction demonstrates that you value that pack of cigarettes more than the amount of cash you must pay for it.

Here’s a question: “If there are no benefits to smoking, why does roughly 20 percent of the world’s adult population smoke?” And here are some likely responses: They are addicted. They underestimate the risks of smoking. They are shortsighted and don’t properly consider the future health costs they will bear. They are seduced by tobacco advertising. Their parents smoked. They are irrational. There might be many reasons why you value those cigarettes — the physical or psychological satisfaction, stress relief, appetite suppression — or maybe you just like the way you look with a cigarette dangling from your mouth. Whatever the reason, whenever you buy anything — from a loaf of bread to a fancy European sports car — you are placing more value on the product than the money you are spending on it. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t buy it.

Imagine the reaction if we were to apply similar approaches to other enjoyable activities, which can be considered unhealthy or socially dangerous, such as drinking alcohol or texting while driving. The drinking example presents an interesting twist. A strong body of research has found that drinking alcohol in moderation — even a daily glass of red wine — is healthier than completely abstaining. But these health benefits become health costs as drinking becomes more excessive. This makes for a tricky cost-benefit analysis when considering policies to discourage drinking.Each response holds some truth and should be properly considered, yet none of these responses can negate one simple fact: People smoke because they see benefits in smoking. If not, they wouldn’t buy cigarettes. This does not sit well with antismoking advocates, who see this as a direct attack on advocacy of antismoking policies.

The recent call for a tripling of tobacco taxes to curb the amount of smoking worldwide is a policy that, like all policies, offers benefits and costs. Mainstream media has lauded the benefits, in terms of lives saved and improvements in health. But where is the mention of the huge financial burden that such a large tax increase would cause smokers, or the reduction of benefits to those who enjoy smoking?But identifying benefits, just like identifying costs, allows us to better understand all the ramifications of these policies. This is known as a cost/benefit analysis as opposed to a cost-only analysis or a benefit-only analysis.

Identifying the benefits of smoking does not tell us that antismoking policies make no sense. Indeed, these policies may dramatically improve social well-being. But these policies, like any public policy, are not a win-win situation. What we can — and must — do is to question anyone who claims that his or her idea for making the world a better place will be appreciated by everyone.

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