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Phillip Morris’s wrong apology

Phillip Morris have apologised to the Czechs for presenting, as a business case in favour of smoking, that a financial benefit from smoking is that it kills people early thereby saving the state money on health care and pensions.   Of course they should not have apologised for this since the claim is definitely true – for most countries and certainly for Australia where there is also a large surplus of tax revenues from cigarettes over health costs (including death costs).   I guess what they were apologising for was stating clearly this truth – that smoking does kill people early and since, contrary to intuition, it has relatively minor effects on morbidity – lung cancer kills you promptly – it does save the state money.

What is truly immoral here is (i) that firms can sell a product which, when consumed as its producers intend, kills you and (ii) the scurrilous use (often by thoughtless economists) of so-called cost-benefit analysis in these settings.  Lumping together sickness and death costs in assessing a case for smoking is just poor ethics. We shouldn’t be trying to maximise net gains for the Treasury in this setting but trying to eliminate senseless deaths that can be attributed to smoking cigarettes.

We could equally argue, on this basis of the silly utilitarian cost-benefit viewpoint, that there are (more generally) two ways to help people save have enough money for their retirement: getting them to save more and getting them to die younger. The easier one by far is getting people to die younger. How might you achieve this? By allowing the citizens to smoke, by subsidising sugary and fatty foods, and making it hard for them to get access to preventative health care. But, when you think about this, as Dan Ariely an economist working in the US has reasoned, it seems like , at least in countries such as the US,  government is already doing most of what it can on this front.


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