The Happiness Factor

The federal government might be spending less money on anti-tobacco campaigns in the near-future.

Why is that?

Because, according to the FDA, smoking is just too much fun.

As reported recently in the New York Times, the Food and Drug Administration released a study in April regarding the regulation of tobacco products in the United States, and it included the claim that the total economic gain from reduced tobacco use must be cut by 70 percent to account for (in the Times’ words) the “loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when they give up their habit.”

I will repeat that.

For every unit of benefit that comes from the effort to induce people not to smoke—lower rates of cancer and heart disease, less crowded hospitals, whiter teeth, fresher breath—seven-tenths should be shaved off, due to the reduction in overall happiness that quitting smoking effects in smokers.

The objective of this FDA report—84 pages in length, including a 43-word title—is to present a cost-benefit analysis of federal anti-smoking policies in order to determine whether such endeavors are worth the trouble. This is something the government is required to do for any set of proposals that costs more than $100 million.

With this newfound “happiness quotient,” the FDA has set a fairly high bar for what might constitute “worthwhile.” As you can imagine, anti-smoking activists—and many economists—are slightly less than pleased.

The main objection of these critics is not the existence of this lost pleasure metric, as such, but rather that it should be so gosh dern high. It would be one thing if the drawbacks of not smoking accounted for, say, 10 percent of all relevant cost-benefit calculations. But 70 percent? Surely pumping several thousand toxins into one’s lungs is not as enjoyable as all that.

But then I am hardly one to say, as the entirety of my own tobacco-inhaling experience consists of a single pack of vanilla-flavored Djarum cloves, consumed in the course of a single month in the summer of 2010, and then never again. While I can affirm that those evenings were abundantly satisfying while they lasted—the balmy weather and bottles of Corona Extra probably helped—I cannot say what might have resulted from, say, smoking a few hundred packs more, exhausting my entire savings account in the process.

Except I hardly need to wonder, because I am a regular viewer of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, whose host is both an ex-smoker and a recovering alcoholic, and has explained on multiple occasions that while he stopped drinking because it was increasingly impairing his ability to function, his decision to stop smoking was more intellectual, and thus more irritating. He knew cigarettes would eventually kill him if he didn’t knock it off, but it was one heck of a lifestyle adjustment, and rarely a cheerful one.

As to precisely what tobacco’s benefits are, Christopher Hitchens was characteristically succinct:

If you aren’t hungry, it will give you an appetite. If you are hungry and there isn’t any food in the immediate future, you can dull your hunger by smoking. It wakes you up if you’re tired. It makes you sleepy if you’re not tired. It’s the perfect self-administered micro drug. It’s the little glowing friend that never lets you down.

(In saying this, Hitchens caustically added, “Come to think of it, I can’t think why I gave the shit up.”)

What I admire about the inclusion of a “happiness quotient” in this FDA paper—however mathematically problematic it might be—is how it admits that there are reasons we consume toxic substances in the first place. That in deciding to indulge, we are making a cost-benefit calculation of our own. That we are knowingly running a risk that, for a while at least, yields real rewards—even if they are ultimately outmatched by heavy, and often fatal, consequences. (Hitchens, for one, was brought down by a sudden and agonizing case of esophageal cancer not long after making the above observations.)

Elementary and high school health classes certainly make little room for this kind of nuance. From all the usual propaganda in textbooks and PSAs, you’d think tobacco and other drugs serve no purpose except as expensive forms of passive suicide.

Certainly, much of the time they do exactly that. At this point in mankind’s scientific evolution, only a deluded fool would say they do not.

However, to say that they do only that—that recreational drugs are an abject waste of one’s life and are to be avoided in all circumstances—is to commit a sin of omission and an insult to the intelligence of even the most mildly clever person.

I am reminded of a recent Onion headline, “Study Links Meat, Sugar Consumption To Early Death Among Those Who Choose To Be Happy In Life.” Or, as Bill Maher phrased it, “Sometimes fun costs ya.”

The obvious rebuttal to this—that is, apart from the extremely obvious one—is that because substances like tobacco are inherently (and deliberately) addictive, the choice to use them is not really a choice at all, particularly among teenagers. As such, any supposed pleasure one derives from them is, to some degree, illusory. (To wit: Have you ever, in a fit of ecstasy, scarfed six or seven extra servings of chocolate lava cake and not felt absolutely awful the next morning?)

Even so, should the FDA care whether this is true, let alone assume that it always is? Is it finally the government’s role to calibrate itself with how people ought to behave, or with how they actually do?

If the right to the pursuit of happiness is truly a founding American value, what business does the government have to limit our capacity to do what makes us happy, provided that it is otherwise legal? Or does this pursuit only encompass what the government thinks is good for us, while everything else is fair game for restrictions?

In the opening line of our Constitution, the government is tasked with “promot[ing] the general welfare.”  To be sure, maintaining a generally healthy populace is a component of such a commission. But isn’t ensuring that we, the people, are personally satisfied another? And isn’t it up to us, not it, to decide what personal satisfaction means? And to the extent that such a thing is objective, aren’t we entitled to be wrong?

Now there’s a happy thought.

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