Monday, August 23, 2010

Reposted: Thank a Smoker

(Note: An opinion column I wrote while a reporter at the Thermopolis (Wyo.) Independent Record, this was first published in the 11 Dec. 2008 issue. I came across it and thought it would be worth reposting, even if the Legislative session mentioned in the piece is long since come and gone. For those interested, I even tracked down the NEJM link.)

The health and safety nannies are back!

A statewide anti-smoking ban looks to have a real shot in the next Legislative session. It would ban smoking in most indoor settings outside of your car and home.

In September, Rep. Elaine Harvey laid out three reasons she supports such a ban in an interview with the Lovell Chronicle. Briefly, she thinks such a ban would save the state money, support the health of non-smokers and “(change) the culture.”

Color me skeptical. Financially, well, we should thank smokers. The sin-taxes smokers pay generate loads of income for the state. According to the Department of Revenue, smokers paid about $25 million in fiscal year 2007.

Harvey told the Chronicle smoking costs Wyoming nearly $300 million a year, split about evenly between lost productivity and healthcare costs, according to the Department of Health.

Well, lost productivity costs will only increase if you make everyone, everywhere, step out to burn one. And how many businesses have you been in lately that allow smoking, besides a few restaurants, and bars?

I’m not sure how the Department of Health came up with their healthcare numbers. Way back in 1997 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that concluded healthcare costs would go up if everyone quit smoking.

The authors wrote, “If people stopped smoking, there would be a savings in healthcare costs, but only in the short term. Eventually, smoking cessation would lead to increased healthcare costs.” Whoops.

(Why is that? Smokers do generate more healthcare costs while we’re alive. But we die a lot sooner, minimizing our withdrawals from Social Security, Medicare and private insurance.)

Let’s talk about the health of non-smokers. Would a comprehensive ban on indoor smoking in public places make a difference? Absolutely. But how much of a difference, and at what cost?

Harvey said “we already regulate the air we breathe,” referring to coal power plants and vehicle emissions. Yep. And so do the many, many business owners who don’t allow smoking in their buildings.

With the lowest unemployment rate in the country, finding work isn’t difficult in Wyoming. Look around Thermopolis. Some businesses can’t find people to hire. If you don’t want to be in a smoky atmosphere, look for a job in a non-smoking environment.

We already accept all sorts of compromises and restrictions at work. Coming into work drunk isn’t a good idea, generally. Drug tests are becoming more common. Some places offer only decaffeinated coffee. But if it’s too much of a burden, well, we can seek other employment.

For the folks who are serious about reducing smoking, here’s an idea. Instead of plowing sin-tax revenues into an advertising campaign that would leave Joe Camel green with envy, subsidize the patch.

We have all kinds of cultural issues to address. Sexism, running up debt like the score against Glenn’s Cowboys, eating too much. A worthwhile cultural shift would be a more honest discussion about consequences.

Smokers are some of the best informed about the impacts of our decision. How can we not be, what with all the propaganda demonizing us like axe murders? I hope we’re as good at explaining the impacts of our economic actions to our children, who will pay our tab.

What of the libertarian bent of this state? Republicans voting to strip autonomy from business owners? That doesn’t sound like Wyoming. But I should have known better.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a smoke. Outside, because my boss says this is a nonsmoking building. It’s his call, and I can live with that.

No comments: