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What you think you know about tobacco may surprise you

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Better off dead?

Lies, damned lies and statistics only serve to cloud the whole debate about smoking

Special report: smoking

George Szamuely
Sunday January 28, 2001
The Observer

I am trying to adopt as many bad habits as possible before it's too late. In that spirit, I recently took up smoking. My teacher was my friend Alexis Trboyevich. It was a while before I got the hang of it. 'You must inhale,' she would insist, 'otherwise you won't enjoy the full benefits of the nicotine'. She had a point It comes as no surprise that scientists are now discovering that nicotine may not be so bad for you after all. According to a 1994 article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, smokers are less likely to get ulcerative colitis - inflammation of the bowels - than non-smokers. Indeed, the article claims, 'the onset of colitis is often associated with the cessation of smoking.' Recently, a Duke University Medical Center study found that nicotine helped Alzheimer's disease patients. Pharmaceutical companies are now trying to develop nicotine medication for use against schizophrenia and depression.

I am not saying that a pack a day will do you as much good as a two-mile run. On the other hand, I don't take the health warnings particularly seriously either. The anti-smoking campaign, a noxious alliance of government and corporations, was always a giant scam to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. It was not the shareholders of Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds who were fleeced. They know how to look after themselves and have not gone poor. It was ordinary smokers, many of whom earned very little, who were forced to turn over an ever-larger share of their income to the state. Governments love sales taxes. They are not as readily noticeable as taxes on income. And their targets are usually the poor, who are unlikely to protest as vehemently as the rich.

More sinister has been the role of the corporations. Anxious about the costs of providing their workforce with health care coverage, corporate managers launched a fierce campaign to compel their employees to lead healthy lives. It was not enough that they did not smoke at the workplace. They could not smoke outside the workplace either. They could not drink. And they had to maintain a proper diet. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, for example, refused to hire smokers. A few years ago, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that it was not a violation of privacy for an employer to ask a job applicant whether or not he had smoked over the previous 12 months. A desire to reduce health insurance costs, the Court argued, constituted reasonable grounds for not hiring someone.

The health care costs are ludicrously exaggerated. And deliberately so, for it provides the corporations with an excuse to intrude into their employees' personal lives. And it provides government with a basis to make a bogus financial claim. Smokers are not a net cost to society. The US academic W. Kip Viscusi argues that smokers will die before non-smokers. Therefore, whatever the health care they may inflict on others during their lifetimes, these would be more than offset by the financial gains that arise from lower nursing home costs, not to mention foregone retirement pensions and social security claims.

The biggest financial burden today is not treatment of the sick but support of the elderly. In Britain the figures are quite startling. Within 30 years Britain is expected to be devoting around 5 per cent of its GNP to long-term care for the elderly - almost the resources the National Health Service as a whole currently commands. Eleven million people receive retirement benefits today, up from £8 million in 1975. In 1999 Britain spent £99 billion on social security benefits, doubling in real terms over 20 years.

Nearly half of this expenditure was on the elderly who, in addition to retirement pensions, may be entitled to income support, housing and council tax benefits. They may also receive home care, day care and meal services. Moreover, if they are sick and disabled, they may be entitled to incapacity benefits, war pensions and statutory sick pay. And that does not even include the amount spent on their medical care. In 1990, there were 3.4 people of working age to every pensioner. By 2031, the ratio may change to 2.7 to one. According to one projection, by the year 2050, 75 per cent of the population will be looking for support from the remaining 25 per cent.

Thus the State's financial claims on the tobacco industry are without foundation. In any case, are smokers really that much more unhealthy than non-smokers? Interestingly, it is hard to get an answer to that question.

The American Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 400,000 people die every year from smoking-related diseases. How it arrives at this figure has always been a bit of a mystery. For one thing, what exactly is a smoking-related disease? According to the CDC it is something a smoker is more likely to get than a non-smoker. Thus if a smoker dies of heart disease, say, the CDC will count it as a smoking-related death. This means that other possible causes, such as a family history of heart disease or chronic lack of exercise, are resolutely ignored. Moreover, the CDC does not like to tell us at what age these 400,000 died. The suggestion is they died young. Yet there is no evidence of this.

Everyone dies of something. Dying of lung cancer at 75 is not the same as dying of it at 45. As a Cato Institute study pointed out: 'Almost 255,000 of the smoking-related deaths - nearly 60 percent of the total - occurred at age 70 or above. More than 192,000 deaths - nearly 45 percent of the total - occurred at age 75 or higher. And roughly 72,000 deaths - almost 17 percent of the total - occurred at the age of 85 or above.'

The CDC loves to cite meaningless statistics, such as: 'Men who smoke increase their risk of death from lung cancer by more than 22 times and from bronchitis and emphysema by nearly 10 times.' Well, it all rather depends on what the likelihood of non-smokers dying from lung cancer is.

If the chances are very small, then 22 times this figure will still not amount to a huge number. 'On average,' the CDC claims, 'smokers die nearly seven years earlier than nonsmokers'. Seven years is by no means an insignificant number if true. On the other hand, it is a far cry from the doom-laden tales of the anti-smoking zealots. A 1991 RAND study claimed that smoking 'reduces the life expectancy of a 20-year-old by about 4.3 years'. I think I can stand to lose 4.3 years from my life. As Harry Lime explained in The Third Man : 'The dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here, poor devils.'

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