February 10, 2009 2:33PM

Reporting on Smoking Costs

How does one explain a one‐​sided story like “Cigarettes’ Cost in Dollars and Lives” in the Washington Post?”

The article assumes that everyone agrees that smokers impose big costs on society, with the upshot that the government needs to try and squelch the bad behavior.

The article discusses how “doctors, health advocates, and patients tally the costs” of smoking, but left out one crucial group: economists.

If the reporter had done his homework, he would have found out that many economists believe that smokers may actually subsidize nonsmokers through various fiscal effects.

For example, the Congressional Research Service found that smokers either impose fairly small costs on nonsmokers or they subsidize them “primarily because smokers’ early death leaves their Social Security and pension contributions unused and available to reduce future financing demands on nonsmokers.”

One can find many similar views by other economists in articles on the Internet. Thus, if the Post reporter had Googled “smoker cost on society” the second hit leads to this quote by economist Kip Viscusi:

The other study I’ve done is looking at the financial ramifications to smoking for the rest of us. These include higher medical costs on the one hand, but lower social security, pension, and nursing home costs on the other hand because smokers die sooner. On balance if you put those together, smokers don’t cost us money, but save society $0.32 per pack.

Don’t they know how to use Google at the Washington Post?

Hat tip: Patrick Fleenor.