As a general rule, cost-benefit analyses are suspect.
Such analyses – which federal agencies perform to weigh the health and safety “benefits” of regulations (benefits like lower infant mortality rates and reliably safe and clean drinking water) against the “cost” of lost profits to Corporate America – result in a distorted model of a regulation’s impact. Invariably, the distortion creates a bias that exaggerates the regulation’s “cost,” largely because cost (measured in dollars and cents) is more easily quantified than benefits.
So one might think it’s a good thing that economists at the FDA have started factoring in pleasure – or, more specifically, its loss – when weighing the costs and benefits of new regulations. And one might think that a regulation that is expected to result in lower infant mortality rates, fewer cancer diagnoses, and longer, healthier lives for the American public to be a winner in terms of “pleasure,” right?
Unfortunately, one would be wrong.
Shockingly, the FDA’s cost-benefit analysis for a new tobacco regulation resulted in the rule’s projected health and safety benefits – fewer instances of heart and lung disease and fewer early deaths – being reduced by 70 percent due to the “loss in pleasure” smokers endure when trying to break their addiction.
As an ex-smoker myself (tobacco-free since 2008), I am well aware that the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal certainly constitute a “loss in pleasure.” But the notion that a smoker’s physical discomfort for a relatively brief period of time somehow trumps by 70 percent the health benefits of quitting (not to mention the increase in one’s disposable income and the gradual restoration of one’s senses of taste and smell) is utterly outrageous. Factor in the increase in pleasure to friends and family (who no longer must tolerate the tobacco stink on one’s breath and clothes and who no longer need worry about what one’s second-hand smoke is doing to them, let alone the smoker) and the overall gain in pleasure would seem to be indisputable.
I’m not alone. In the comment forum on the New York Times piece about the flawed FDA calculation, ex-smokers and friends and family who lost loved ones due to smoking-related illnesses blasted the calculation.
Here’s what a few had to say:
Mark from Indianapolis, Indiana:
If we’re going to agonize over the lost happiness of quitting smoking, it is only appropriate that we rejoice over the benefits of quitting as well: We can start with the return of the sense of taste, the loss of the stench of old smoke in one’s clothing, the increase in disposable income, the reduction in the chances of developing cancer or emphysema, and the knowledge that we are no longer exposing our friends and family to a myriad of known carcinogens. Overall, not a bad trade.
Michele from New Haven, Connecticut:
What about the great happiness of having given up smoking, at last, after many years of trying? Is that figured in to these calculations?
Barry from Los Angeles, California:
Having complete a grueling bout of cancer treatment, I am pretty sure that all the pleasure smokers may feel while lighting up, is pretty much outweighed by the horrors one faces dealing with morbidity and mortality issues once cancer is diagnosed and while it is being treated, if it can be treated. Also, my pleasure is significantly reduced when I see millions, probably billions of dollars going to the treatment of sick tobacco users, that could go toward research into diseases where the patient is a victim, not of thoughtless pleasure seeking, but of cruel genetic forces beyond her or his control.
Ellie from Massachusetts:
If I read the article correctly, the proposed regulation asserts that only the smoker’s own happiness should be considered in weighing lowered risk of deadly illnesses and shortened life against the lost pleasures of smoking. Where in the calculation is the unhappiness of the smoker’s spouse and children when the smoker dies young, the unhappiness of the employer and colleagues when the smoker takes frequent smoke breaks in the short term, and is absent more and costs the company health plan more in the long term? Where in the calculation is my unhappiness when I have to walk through the smoker’s gagging cloud on the sidewalk or at the beach? Where is the cost to society of all those smokers costing us years each of lost productivity and independence, and raising all of our health care premiums as we all share the very high health costs of their nasty habit?
Bill from California:
I smoked for ten years (cigarettes, pipes, and cigars) before quitting. I never experienced an ounce of “happiness” from pulling the tars into my lungs. Smoking was purely a social habit that one soon acquired and that soon had one habitually reaching mechanically and without thinking for a smoke. If there is any happiness associated with smoking it is from giving up the habit and cutting the likelihood of becoming sick and dying of lung cancer and other tobacco-related ills. The only ones enjoying happiness from smoking are the business men counting their profits from peddling their wares to smokers they lure into the habit.
Want to learn more? Read the comment on this issue that Public Citizen sent to the FDA.
Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.