Can Emphysema Buy Happiness?

Sharone Stone SmokingHow much is your happiness worth? Can you put a dollar amount on it? I can on mine.

$6.25. That’s the cost of a Butterfinger shake at vegan fast-food haven Blossom du Jour. Seriously, it’s better than porn. Of course, Uncle Sam’s sales tax chips away at my joy, but then, who said the government was ever in the business of happiness?

The government did, in fact, when not long ago it released its latest proposed tobacco regulations. The New York Times reported that the new guidelines included “a little-known cost-benefit calculation that public health experts see as potentially poisonous: the happiness quotient. It assumes that the benefits from reducing smoking—fewer early deaths and diseases of the lungs and heart—have to be discounted by 70 percent to offset the loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when they give up their habit.”

In other words, happy smokers mutate into miserable quitters—at least temporarily after puffing their last plume. Put more simply, the health gains from quitting smoking aren’t as great when balanced against the unhappiness quitters feel.

Put even more simply: What good is not getting emphysema if you’re just going to complain about your good health?

On one hand, it’s nice to see Big Bro considering the happiness of its millions of little brothers. Ultimately, the whole point of government is to ensure the happiness of its citizens, something I especially believe as an advocate of utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number (an over-simplification of the ethical theory, but you get the point).

Plus, the U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By now, we all know that tobacco kills the first part of this trifecta, is an impetus for debate around second, but we rarely—if ever—think about smoking in terms of the third.

Well, the government’s been thinking, and some say thinking about it all wrongly.

From the Times story:

“This threatens the F.D.A’’s ability to take strong actions against tobacco,” Frank J. Chaloupka, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of the Food and Drug Administration. “If they can’t demonstrate that there is a significant economic benefit to doing it, then it makes their job much harder.”

That the feds are running all sorts of cost-benefit calculations related to your health is nothing new. It’s also nothing to complain about. After all, if your well-being were all that mattered, then states would reduce their roadway speed limits. A National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) report last year found that:

…higher speed limits were associated with an increased likelihood of deaths and incapacitating injuries. It found that increasing a speed limit from 55 to 65 mph on an ‘average’ section of high speed road resulted in about a 3% increase in the total number of crashes and a 24% increase in the likelihood that a vehicle occupant would be fatally injured.

So should we lower speed limits to 40 mph. Maybe 45 mph? How about an uber-safe 30 mph along I-95? Perhaps transform highways into walkways?

The point here is not to figure out how fast you should be allowed to drive. Rather, it’s to highlight that health is but one consideration when drafting policy. Thus, it makes sense for the government to consider all sorts of benefits when writing tobacco statutes. And although it’s difficult to quantify—let alone define—happiness, the government deserves praise for inserting it in its tobacco-regulation calculation.

CigarettesStill, somewhere in this equation, something goes wrong. It’s possible that the government may be overly emphasizing a decrease in happiness from quitting tobacco—as if smokers were a happy bunch to begin with.  I mean, have you ever seen the smokers outside your workplace? They look half-dead (which, you know, they kinda sorta are inhaling their smoke).

Granted, they may be unhappy for any number of reasons, and perhaps they’d fall deeper into depression (as they gain weight) without their Virginia Slims. On the other hand, despite initial cravings, many former smokers will eagerly tell you how much happier they are without tobacco. That is, the pleasure they eventually gained more than made up for the initial pleasure they lost by quitting. I’m not sure if the government is emphasizing this enough.

Furthermore, many smokers began their habit in their teens, many of whom, you know, like, OMG, would rather have died than, like, missed out on the chance to be one of the popular kids.

Back in the day, popular kids smoked. The government’s calculus seems also to ignore this.

So, if the government is going to start including a pleasure principle in its computations, it’s going to have to do a better job of doing its math. Otherwise, its efforts are just smoke and mirrors.

What do you think?

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