HICKS: State smoking ban recognizes value of life

March 24, 2012

The workplace smoking ban signed by Gov. Mitch Daniels this week was a much-needed law. Of course, my Libertarian friends will object to its intrusion on liberty, and my leftist friends will say it didn’t go far enough. To them I ask, “What are you smoking?”

The legislation bans smoking in most public places and restaurants. Casinos, private clubs and a few other establishments have exemptions. No one is seriously inconvenienced, and few businesses are likely to shutter their doors. At worst, this legislation will make Hoosiers look like we’ve entered the 21st century. At best, it will motivate folks to stop smoking. But the issue of smoking offers three broader lessons.

First, smoking is increasingly looked upon as a problem for businesses. Health insurance for smokers is much more costly than for non-smokers. So it is increasingly clear that states with high smoking rates face a growing economic development barrier. And that is a challenge for those of us who live in places with higher smoking rates.

Second, when it comes to economics, the loudest voices from the medical and public health community have missed the target. During this legislative session, a former public health official cited huge public costs for treating smokers. Shortly thereafter, research from a state university restated some parts of that argument. In both cases, the same error was repeated by assuming that smokers would not otherwise require medical care and die. This is, in the parlance of research, an optimistic assumption.

The truth is that smoking among private-sector workers actually reduces the cost of government health care. You see, the government doesn’t pay most health care bills, and smokers tend to die young. Moreover, the costs of dying from smoking-related diseases are relatively low when compared with the maladies of old age such as Alzheimer’s. The reason for this is that most folks simply die of smoking-related diseases before they can rack up an extra couple of decades of health care costs.

So, if we worried exclusively about government finances, the best possible scenario would be for someone to smoke through age 65, pay taxes, then die. This would keep medical costs out of the public sector, maximize tax receipts, and save on Social Security expenses. It would be a public finance boon.

But therein lies the third lesson: Almost no regulatory policy can be usefully thought of purely in terms of fiscal or commercial economic activity. The value and enjoyment of human life also matters.

Sure, this value is not infinite; we all behave as if there are limits to the value of being alive. We do things that are exciting but may cause us to die, and we engage in behaviors that will shorten our lives. However, the real cost of smoking is that it prematurely kills people we love and cherish.

Their lives have value. A government that understands and behaves as if life has value will still be imperfect, but less so than one that does not.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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