The real cost of cigarettes to male smokers: $222 a pack

Nov 26, 2007

W. Kip Viscusi and Joni HerschHow much does a pack of cigarettes really cost a smoker? While past studies have focused on the cost of cigarette smoking to society, a new report by two Vanderbilt University professors looks at the cost of smoking per pack in terms of the value of the risks to the smoker’s life.

University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management W. Kip Viscusi and Professor of Law and Economics Joni Hersch found that each pack of cigarettes a man smokes reduces the value of his life by $222. For women, the results are $94 per pack.

“The data illustrates that smoking dwarfs almost every other risk people take,” Viscusi said. Viscusi is one of the leading authorities on cost-benefit analysis and the author of Smoke-Filled Rooms: A Post-Mortem on the Tobacco Deal.

The study results would seem to differ from Viscusi’s earlier findings that the cost of smoking to society is reduced due to smokers’ earlier deaths. But this study is different because it takes into account the cost to the smokers themselves based on the value smokers put on their own lives rather than the financial costs to society.

Previous research only considered the increased risk of dying at the end of life, whereas Viscusi and Hersch take note that smoking increases a person’s chances of dying at any time in his or her life. And, though it seems counterintuitive, the research finds that the value that a 20-year-old places on reducing the risk of death is actually lower than a 50-year-old’s. Although 20-year-olds have more of their life at risk, they are less affluent then 50-year-olds and consequently value safety less.

Why is the cost lower for women than for men? Viscusi and Hersch said it’s because men typically earn more than women over their lifetimes and have a greater mortality risk from smoking.

While it may be tempting for pundits to use this new analysis as an excuse for higher cigarette taxes, Viscusi said the data serve to reinforce the result that the main costs of smoking are not to society but to the smokers themselves. His past studies of smokers’ risk beliefs show that smokers already overestimate the risk of smoking, but smoke anyway. The question then, said Viscusi, is whether smokers really do like to smoke and also are just more likely to live in the present moment.

Despite the current focus on obesity, Viscusi said the bottom line is still that smoking is one of the worst risks people take with their health.

Viscusi and Hersch’s results can be found in their newly released working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The final paper will be published in the Journal of Health Economics.

Read a draft of Viscusi & Hersch’s working paper

– Amy Wolf, Vanderbilt Public Affairs


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