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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Deadly Savings

I'm writing this commentary in a sarcastically, morbid tone so please don't hold me accountable for a little dark humor. I recently joked to a couple of friends that I wished the government and manufacturers would get together to dramatically lower the cost of cigarettes and liquor and legalize drugs such as crack and cocaine. My fictitious reason for doing this was to reduce the size of the population by allowing those who want to foolishly surrender their lives to these additions to do so, thus lowering health costs for those remaining alive.

Well, House members have described huge health care costs associated with smoking as they approved landmark legislation last week that gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products. The bill awaits action in the Senate. No one mentioned the costs of caring for a nonsmoking society that lives longer. I would like to present some costs to consider.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokers cost the country $96 billion a year in direct health care costs, and an additional $97 billion a year in lost productivity. However, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers, according to the CDC, and those premature deaths provide a savings to Medicare, Social Security, private pensions and other programs. A savings?

Vanderbilt University economist Kip Viscusi studied the net costs of smoking-related spending and savings and found that for every pack of cigarettes smoked, the country reaps a net cost savings of 32 cents. (FOX News, April 8 2009) Viscusi said in an interview, "... if you're going to follow this health-cost train all the way, you have to take into account all the effects, not just the ones you like in terms of getting your bill passed." In other words, making it tougher to smoke may actually cost people more than providing additional aging care for those who survive.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions.

I really do not wish to see people die early deaths. I am just poking fun when I suggest things like making it easier for people to smoke, drink, and obtain illegal drugs is something America should do. But, ironically, those who succumb to these vices may save others big dollars in elderly care.

We probably could take this kind of logic to ridiculous lengths by also examining other costs and savings to society due to overeating, lack of exercise, and stressful environments; however, going to such lengths seems unproductive to practical reasoning. This list of potentially deadly behaviors could go on and on.

Practicing life threatening behavior in any form has a resemblance to playing Russian roulette. What should we do to change the grim reality of mortality rates? In monetary terms, I guess one could say we may be better off to do nothing-- live and let die.

It seems the only real answer is to educate addictive personalities about the true societal costs of their dependent behavior. Even then, would many of these people really care? I doubt it.

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