It'd be easier to illustrate this to Joe Camel if he had five fingers

This Economist daily chart last week shocked me:

I should point out, though, that it wasn’t so much the chart that freaked me out. Percentages can be deceiving as there’re two numbers involved, and in this case the denominator — total deaths in a country — is going to vary wildly between countries. African countries may have more smoking deaths than North America, and may even have more smoking deaths per capita than North America, but there are myriad other causes of death in those countries which mute the relative impact of smoking.

In my mind the most shocking part of the Economist’s post was in the preamble: “Nearly one in five deaths in rich countries is caused by smoking, according to new data released this week by the World Health Organisation.”  I found that hard to believe, but a quick Google search turned up some supporting evidence.

One in five…one in five. According to the list of leading causes of death in Canada in 1997, that’s twice as many deaths as accidents, diabetes, suicide, liver disease, cirrhosis and HIV account for put together. How tobacco companies haven’t been sued — or prosecuted — into oblivion yet is beyond me.

Seeing that list does put things in perspective though. No warfare in the top 15. No genocide or famine either. No earthquakes, typhoons or tsunamis. Instead, safe from the list of things that kill the rest of the world, we voluntarily stick cancer-causing chemicals in our mouths. Unbelievable.

0 responses to “It'd be easier to illustrate this to Joe Camel if he had five fingers

  1. Interesting. The tobacco industry is still around because we voluntarily put them into our mouths – and pay top dollar for that smooth death causing flavour. They won’t go away until the demand does – same as any other business, including other drugs. Now why tobacco is legal and most other drugs (except alcohol) are not, is a more interesting question. My hypothesis is that because they don’t kill that quickly and the high is not all encompassing, as a society we feel we can live with it as a an acceptable level of loss for the freedoms we want people to have.

    Finally, what smoker who started after say 1975 didn’t know what they were doing was harmful to their health? Free will doesn’t mean we make the right choices.

  2. Oh, I’m not questioning the demand for tobacco, and I’m certainly not questioning the health/safety tradeoffs we make as a society every day for convenience, cost or personal freedoms. Anybody who owns a car routinely trades off all three.

    My question was why the tobacco companies haven’t been sued into oblivion yet. There’re three things setting them apart from alcohol or other drugs: 1) used as intended, cigarette smoke is deadly not only to the smoker but also to everyone around them; 2) tobacco companies have been known to inject addictive substances into cigarettes without disclosing that fact to customers; 3) the tobacco industry, for decades, lied about and obfuscated the health hazards of smoking. I don’t think you could say that about booze. There’s been lots of criticism of their advertising, but used as intended and in moderation it’s not directly deadly to the drinker or whoever’s around them…something you can’t say about smokes.

    You yourself said that anyone who smoked after 1975 knew what they were doing, but tobacco companies were still telling everyone smoking wasn’t bad for you. Clearly that message was sticking, judging by at least one anecdote: Nellie’s mother was told by her doctor that it was okay to smoke during her pregnancy. That was in 1975. As the Economist chart pointed out we’re paying the long-term cost of that cover-up now, and it looks like the rest of the world will start paying it soon enough.

    I assume the tobacco industry is still around because it can afford to buy protection from lawmakers. They can obviously settle for $206B when need be.

  3. The fact that we’ve done away with so much death by disease or accident in the west – and that we’re left with is now significantly comprised of preventable causes, like smoking – was featured in a recent Wired magazine, as one of their “big ideas”. We can’t blame nature anymore. As you’ve pointed out, it doesn’t really look like we’re blaming *anyone*.

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